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Home HEALTH Taking Psychedelics May Reduce Death Anxiety

Taking Psychedelics May Reduce Death Anxiety

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

There could 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 poll by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine, published August 24 in the journal PLUS ONE, People’s attitudes about death change after a psychedelic drug experience and a non-drug-related out-of-body experience. The researchers divided more than 3,000 participants into two groups: those who had previously 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 north,northdimethyltryptamine (DMT). They found that about 90% of people in both groups were less afraid of death than they were before their experiences.

These findings build on previous research showing that psychedelics, especially when combined with therapy, can ease end-of-life anxiety. That includes a 2016 randomized clinical trial that found that psilocybin decreased depression and anxiety among 51 life-threatening cancer patients. Co-author Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is hopeful that psychedelics could 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 illness,” he says, including by lessening the emotional pain some people feel at the end of their lives, such as depression, anxiety and isolation.

Evidence suggests that psychedelics can affect the brain, including by promoting neuroplasticity, which refers to its ability to modify, change and adapt. It is more difficult to determine how near-death experiences impact 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 might call “God” — 48% among the drug-free group and 56% among people who had used psychedelics. In the drug-free group, 85% said the experience was among the five most significant in their lives, compared to 75% in the psychedelic group.

The study isn’t a perfect representation of the range of what happens when people take psychedelics or have an unusual drug-free experience. For example, the study authors note that the participants were mostly white and American. They also opted to join the survey, meaning they might have been especially motivated to share their experiences. Furthermore, there are signs that at least some people could 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 further scientific research, Griffiths says, including broad surveys of the general population. For now, however, the new findings add hope that while death will always be inevitable, suffering ultimately need not be.

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