Taking psychedelics can reduce anxiety about death

Out-of-body experiences and other mystical experiences can be life changing, and research suggests they can even make people less afraid of dying. But such experiences are rare and tend to occur accidentally and in the most extreme circumstances, such as near death.

There might be another way to mimic the near-death experience: Scientists have identified striking parallels between these experiences and the effects of psychedelic drugs. According to a new survey by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine, published Aug. 24 in the journal PLOS ONE, people’s attitudes towards death change after a psychedelic drug experience and a non-drug out-of-body experience. The researchers divided more than 3,000 participants into two groups: those who had already had an extraordinary drug-free experience and those who had used a psychedelic drug: psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), lysergic acid diethylamide ( LSD), ayahuasca or NOT,NOT-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). They found that about 90% of people in both groups had less fear of death than they had before their experiences.

These findings build on previous research showing that psychedelics, especially when combined with therapy, can relieve end-of-life anxiety. This includes a 2016 randomized clinical trial that found psilocybin reduced depression and anxiety in 51 patients with life-threatening cancer. Co-author Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, hopes that psychedelics can one day be used to help anyone struggling with the fear of death. The treatment “could significantly reduce suffering in people with or without a life-threatening condition,” he says, including easing the emotional pain some people experience at the end of life, such as depression, anxiety and isolation.

Evidence suggests that psychedelics may affect the brain, including promoting neuroplasticity, which refers to its ability to modify, change and adapt. It is more difficult to determine the impact of near-death experiences on the brain. However, both experiences – almost dying and taking psychedelics – can be profound. About half of each group in the new study said they had encountered something they could call “God” – 48% among the non-addicted group and 56% among those who had used psychedelics. In the non-addicted group, 85% said the experience was among the five most meaningful in their life, compared to 75% in the psychedelic group.

The study is not a perfect representation of the range of what happens when people take psychedelics or have an unusual non-drug experience. For example, the study authors point out that the participants were predominantly white and American. They also chose to participate in the survey, which means they might have been particularly motivated to share their experiences. Moreover, there are signs that at least some people might be negatively affected by these experiences; about 1 in 20 people in each group said they were more afraid of death afterwards.

The next step is additional scientific research, Griffiths says, including large surveys of the general population. For now, however, the new findings add hope that while death will always be inevitable, the suffering in the end need not be.

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