Unlocking the mind: how psilocybin offers new hope for depression, anxiety, and PTSD

psilocybin for depression anxiety

Julie relived the accident every day. Some days, the replay was in slow motion, like her brain was doing everything possible in an attempt to find the one thing she could have done differently. Other days, when she was occupied with trying to live her life, the accident played over and over in the background of her mind. Julie appeared to be a functioning young woman on the outside. Yet her internal life was riddled with anxiety and depression.

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You might be surprised to learn the number of people in your community suffering with similar experiences as Julie. It is estimated that 1 out of every 11 people will experience a traumatic event leading to PTSD and that over 21 million Americans have suffered from varying degrees of depression. In my practice alone, I have seen anxiety rates almost double in teens over the last 20 years. The most crippling stories being from those that have no idea why they feel the way they do. Depression and anxiety can be caused by many factors, but when emotional trauma blocks the ability to process thoughts, feelings, and emotions, people spiral.

Unbeknownst to me, my work began to specialize in mental health early on as a Naturopathic physician. As a primary care doctor, I worked diligently to solve the complex problems my patients presented. But time and time again, I noticed that most of my patients’ visits focused on their mental well-being. I believe it started with Ashley, aged 15, whose mom brought her to see me to talk about acne and nutrition. A bright young girl whose entire future was ahead of her. Unfortunately, due to crippling anxiety, she was having a terrible time at school. Every morning, Ashley would wake up and be terrified to go. Terrified of someone coming to that school with a gun. When lockdown drills happened, she would panic and squeeze every part of her body and hold her breath to stop herself from crying. As her friends laughed and joked about calling in “threats” to the school so they could all go home, Ashley would feel sick to her stomach.

And then there was David. A 67-year-old man diagnosed with cancer. His focus in seeing me was to couple his allopathic treatment with supportive therapy to reduce nausea and neuralgia and increase energy. As we visited, inevitably, the conversation would return to his fear of dying. How much of his mental space was occupied with this thought versus helping, healing thoughts on getting better?

With patients like these, I would spend hours thinking how best to treat them. Yes, we have wonderful medications and varying talk therapies. But what happens when none of those work? Is the life sentence to live with eternal suffering?

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In one of my mental health continuing education seminars, psilocybin therapy was mentioned. A clinical trial at Johns Hopkins for those with terminal illness. The trial was to study the impact that one psilocybin treatment could have on alleviating anxiety and depression. The clinical findings were resoundingly positive, and as a result, I dove in deep to better understand this psychedelic therapy.

In the Western medical model, a relatively simple explanation for psilocybin therapy is that it turns off your default mode network (DMN). Your DMN is the part of your brain that is constantly ON and is involved in recalling personal experiences from one’s life. Every experience, particularly the traumatic ones, is encoded in the brain. This includes thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, all of it. But while in a psilocybin session, that part of your brain is turned off.

As a result, all of the thoughts and feelings surrounding certain events and memories in one’s life are also turned off. The brain is then free to examine these thoughts, questions, and events in a new way. This allows participants to connect to deep areas of the psyche. Most often, this leads to new perceptions in understanding oneself and the events that occurred. Veterans have unpacked emotional burdens, participants have resurfaced after years of depression, and terminal patients have found peace with the dying process.

In a comfortable and calm treatment space, clients meet their facilitators to begin the session. Previously, the two have met two to three times to establish a foundational relationship, answer questions, and review the steps of the session. After last-minute questions, the psilocybin is ingested in the form of a capsule or raw dried mushroom. The participant then lies back on a bed or couch to relax. There are eye shades and headphones that play with soft music, or there can be silence.

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I can’t say what will happen next as that is an individual experience unique to the person. But in general, you will see images, colors, and patterns with your mind’s eye and have thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. There is no right or wrong way to have a psilocybin session, and whatever comes up is considered part of the therapy. A facilitator is there to support your needs and to keep you safe.

Is it a one-shoe-fits-all? Most certainly not. I don’t know of anything that is. But in a world full of people suffering, having another viable treatment strategy is invaluable. In my book, Psilocybin Therapy: Understanding How to Use Nature’s Psychedelic for Mental Health, I cover topics such as the history of psilocybin use, who might benefit from psilocybin therapy, the role of a psilocybin facilitator, and contraindications to therapy. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the following takeaways.

  1. Psilocybin research began in the 1950s and over 10,000 papers have been published on the successful trials of use.
  2. The state of Oregon is currently the only state that offers legalized psilocybin therapy.
  3. At time of writing, the following states have active legislation regarding psilocybin: Alaska,  California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Vermont, Wisconsin.
  4. There are over 100 active clinical trials with psilocybin currently in the US.
  5. The top reasons people are choosing psilocybin therapy: PTSD, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, finding peace with death, self-enlightenment.

*This piece was submitted by a guest contributor. The author is solely responsible for its contents.

Dr. JJ Pursell Dr. JJ Pursell is a board-certified naturopathic physician and acupuncturist in the state of Oregon, the pioneering U.S. state to legalize psilocybin therapy. She began her journey into health and medicine in 1993 earning a BA in Biochemistry and English, a Masters in Chinese Medicine, and a Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine. Her recent work has shifted towards the field of psychedelic medicine, an area she explored further by graduating from the Clinical Psilocybin Training and Research program in 2023. Her book, Psilocybin Therapy: Understanding How to Use Nature's Psychedelic for Mental Health released in 2024.