Psychedelics were once the domain of hippie counterculture, but now ecstasy, otherwise known as MDMA (or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), is being hailed as a potential breakthrough treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What is PTSD?
PTSD is common in the aftermath of traumatic experiences like sexual assault, war, violent crime or bullying. Following trauma, the nervous system can stay in a chronic state of heightened alert, long after the trauma or threat has passed. Painfully, PTSD sufferers typically re-experience the traumatic events again and again and consequently suffer from anxiety, episodes of panic and exhaustion. In many cases, PTSD proves difficult to treat with standard therapy, as revisiting the trauma in order to try and understand it or process it proves too painful and distressing.
Origins of MDMA
MDMA was first synthesised in early 1912, but didn’t become widely utilised until the 1970s where it was used in couples counselling to break down hostility and anger. From there, its popularity and usage spread, especially as a recreational drug, eventually leading to it being banned in 1985 in the USA and soon after in Australia.
Some 30 years later, the FDA, America’s drug regulator, approved the first clinical trials for MDMA in chronic PTSD sufferers. In the recently completed second phase of the study, 107 subjects with chronic PTSD were given two to three MDMA assisted psychotherapy sessions, after which 53% of participants no longer qualified for PTSD diagnosis, compared to 23% of the placebo group. One year after the treatment, 66% of the subjects interviewed no longer had PTSD. Stage three of the US trials are due to get underway in 2021 across 13 sites in the US, Canada and Israel.
Despite its potentially game-changing benefits, there are no clinical trials planned in Australia and therefore no legal access to this emerging therapy. There are reports of a growing movement of underground psychedelic psychotherapy in Australia, but little is known about it.
How does MDMA Help?
Brain imaging studies on people taking MDMA show reduced activity in the amygdala (emotional processing) and hippocampus (memory and emotions) areas of the brain. This reduction in brain activity may go some way to explain how it helps people revisit their traumatic experiences without being re-traumatised, in turn allowing for increased insight and memory.
Therapists report the introduction of the psychedelic element allows the client to be held in a state of emotional security or empathic self-reflection. In other words, it allows them to be with their traumatic memories without being overwhelmed by the profoundly negative effects that usually accompany the recall of their most frightening experiences and thoughts.
Given the appallingly high numbers of people in our society who are dealing with the lingering effects of traumatic experiences, it’s understandable that proponents of psychedelic psychotherapy believe the moment MDMA is allowed to become a widely available tool in the hands of skilled practitioners, the world will profoundly change for the better.
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