What Is Psilocybin Therapy?

Psilocybin mushrooms, commonly known as magic mushrooms, mushrooms or shrooms being grown in a home based incubator.

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What Is Psilocybin Therapy?

Psilocybin Therapy

Also known as psilocybin-assisted therapy, psilocybin therapy involves the use of a psychedelic compound that is native to a specific type of mushroom in a psychotherapeutic setting.

Psilocybin mushrooms are colloquially known as "magic mushrooms" or "shrooms," and have been used for thousands of years as a spiritual and medicinal tool among Indigenous populations.

What a Psilocybin Therapy Session Looks Like

Psilocybin therapy involves a patient ingesting the chemical psilocybin while in the care of a therapist. The patient goes on a psychedelic journey in this controlled, safe environment, and the therapist facilitates their experience.

The session lasts six to eight hours, which is the full duration of the drug's effects. Though in some situations, patients may use the substance more than once. The general standard is that the psychedelic journey occurs a single time, with standard talk therapy often continuing after.

The goal of psilocybin therapy is to impact emotional obstacles and long-term problems in an expedient manner by utilizing the psychedelic journey, rather than spending months or years in talk therapy slowly working through them.

Let's look in-depth at psilocybin therapy, including who is a candidate for it, what the benefits and risks are, and how to know if it's right for you.

The History of Psilocybin Therapy

For many people, the notion of using a psychedelic drug for therapy might sound like something counterculture or fringe. That's not the case at all!

Psilocybin therapy is both studied and used by highly legitimate medical establishments such as Johns Hopkins. In fact, it was John Hopkins University that first received regulatory approval for psychedelic research in the year 2000, decades after the research and therapy were banned by the U.S. government in 1970.

In 2006, the first research paper by Johns Hopkins was published on the positive long-term impact of using psilocybin in a therapeutic study. Since then, dozens of studies and academic papers have been published, with the overarching theme that the therapy offers solid, long-term positive impact for patients with a variety of conditions.

In 2021, Hopkins received a federal grant for psychedelic treatment research, which was within a similar timeframe of some states beginning to decriminalize it. Currently, legislation has been passed in over a dozen states to make psilocybin more legal.

It's important to note that the decriminalization and usage of the substance have been centered around its therapeutic value, and most places that allow it, allow it only in therapeutic settings.

Who Can Psilocybin Therapy Help?

Psilocybin therapy is generally used for people with issues that may be refractory to conventional therapies.

Below are some of the populations who have been shown to benefit from psilocybin therapy.

Chronic Illness Patients

For people with life-threatening cancer, a single dose of psilocybin was shown to dramatically reduce their depression and anxiety. The effects were long-lasting, with 60% to 80% of the group continuing to experience improvement in those symptoms over six months later.

Another study of cancer patients performed showed that over 80% continued to feel better over six months after the single-dose therapy. They reported improvements in their attitudes about life, their moods, and their sense of spirituality, as well as a reduction in their depression, anxiety, and feelings of dread or hopelessness about their illness.

People With Depression and Anxiety

Both depression and anxiety can be serious, debilitating conditions that make people unable to go about their normal day-to-day lives.

For patients whose depression had previously been resistant to treatment, the results of studies have been no less profound. One study showed that 13 out of 20 patients experienced improvement, and for four of them, the depression went into remission.

In regards to patients with anxiety, a meta-analysis of two dozen studies stated that overall, 65% of patients experienced less anxiety after psilocybin therapy treatment.

It's clear that psilocybin therapy has the potential to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

PTSD Patients

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can persist for years after a traumatic event, and it can disrupt all facets of life. Psilocybin has been studied for usage with PTSD patients with positive results.

Other psychedelics such as MDMA and ketamine have also been studied in PTSD.

Other Uses

Studies have been published that have explored the use of psilocybin therapy for drug addiction, smoking cessation, Alzheimer's disease, and more.

Benefits of Psilocybin Therapy

Specifically, studies have shown that "psilocybin is reported to result in significant changes in brain dynamics and functional connectivity (FC) between areas of the brain." This may help to explain why the results of its usage have been so dramatic, and why they have been more long-lasting than other forms of therapy.

Based on the various studies included in this article, the benefits of psilocybin therapy include the following:

  • Reduced rates of depression
  • Chronic depression moving into remission
  • Lowered levels of anxiety
  • Improved mood
  • Less fear of the future
  • Increased sense of spirituality and connection
  • Enhanced quality of life

Effectiveness

No form of therapy is a panacea, and there will always be some people who react differently to a specific treatment than others do.

Based on the studies reviewed in this article, it's common for about two-thirds of people who try psilocybin therapy to note marked positive results that last.

This includes populations that have conditions that have resisted treatment in the past.

Because studies have only been funded for the last two decades, and have only been funded by the U.S. government for the last two to three years, there is still much more research needed.

Things to Consider

Because psilocybin is a psychoactive substance, it's important to be fully informed before you contemplate using it. It should always be done in the company of a licensed therapist who is specialized in its therapeutic usage.

There May Be Potential for Addiction

Even though psilocybin is generally not considered an addictive drug, people who have substance abuse problems still could potentially find themselves drawn to take the substance again, outside of their clinical setting.

This is a tricky subject because the drug has been researched in the treatment of certain substance use issues, so it's wise to discuss this at length with your practitioner.

It Might Bring Up Uncomfortable Emotions

Even if you have positive results from the therapy it may not be a completely enjoyable experience. That's why it's so important that it be facilitated by someone who can help you if things go awry.

It's important to realize that in order to move through painful parts of your life, you'll likely be confronting them head-on in the session. That can be scary and uncomfortable in the best of times, let alone when under the influence of psychedelics.

Patients With Heart Problems Should Exercise Caution

There have been some questions whether psilocybin might cause certain types of cardiac issues, however there is no clear evidence for this. If you have any cardiac or medical issues, check with your physician before considering its use.

How to Get Started

Whether or not psilocybin therapy is available in your area is dependent both on where you live and whether or not studies are being conducted near you. Your best bet is to research the therapy in your area, to see if there are legal therapeutic uses for it allowed, and/or if there are currently any research studies that you could be a part of.

It is of utmost importance that if you want to use this substance therapeutically, you seek out only people professionally trained in using it in clinical studies. That means that you cannot do online therapy with psilocybin, and you should not trust a practitioner who isn't a licensed clinical therapist or doctor.

Other Options

As it is still experimental, psilocybin therapy should likely not be considered until more conventional therapies have been tried. Because of that, nearly any other form of therapy would be a more mild place to start. If you've never done therapy at all, consider starting talk therapy.

For those who have done therapy before and haven't found it to yield the desired results, there are other psychotherapies that engage the body, such as somatic therapy, which utilizes a mind-body connection to try and produce long term change, and EMDR, which uses your eye movements to re-contextualize past traumatic events in your life with new thoughts about them.

A Word From Verywell

Because psilocybin therapy is fairly new and is still being studied, it may prove difficult to access it in your area. If this is something you're interested in, stay informed about its legal status where you live, so that when it becomes more accessible, you have the option to try it. But in the meantime, don't wait on starting therapy—it can benefit you at any time, and even if its results aren't as profound as psychedelics, it's still very useful.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.