Can Experiential Avoidance Be Treated With Psychedelics? Can They Be Useful In Treating Depression?

There have been several studies o the effects of psychedelic drugs and potential benefits in alieving depression in relation to experiential avoidance. There has also been a lot of new research and it provides preliminary evidence that psychedelic drugs can improve mental health by making individuals more accepting of distressing experiences.

Frontiers in Psychiatry, adds to a growing body of literature and research that indicates using substances like psilocybin can result in sustainable improvements in depressive symptoms.

Psychedelic therapy refers to therapeutic practices involving psychedelic drugs, oftentimes utilizing serotonergic psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA, mescaline, and 2C-B.Wikipedia

portrait, fractal, psychedelic
Photo by KELLEPICS on Pixabay

“Psychedelic therapy has shown promise as a novel treatment for a range of mental health concerns, including major depressive disorder, distress associated with a life-threatening illness, and substance use disorders,” said study author Richard Zeifman, a PhD student at Ryerson University and research intern at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.

“In contrast with the traditional pharmacological interventions, the effects of psychedelic therapy appear to last months and even years after treatment has ended. Understanding how psychedelic therapy leads to long-lasting mental health improvements across a range of conditions is not yet fully understood but is important for enhancing and delivering psychedelic therapy to individuals that may benefit from it.”

Researchers were particularly interested in the transdiagnostic construct known as experiential avoidance, meaning the tendency to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

When unpleasant thoughts are experienced such as our, emotions, or sensations, there is often a natural tendency to want to avoid these uncomfortable experiences – sometimes, at all costs.

People who score high on a measure of experiential avoidance agree with statements such as “I would sacrifice a lot not to feel bad” and “I will go out of my way to avoid uncomfortable situations.”

rotation, rotated, spiral
Photo by DavidZydd on Pixabay

Experiential avoidance often occurs without us ever taking notice. The following are examples of this occurrence:

  • Addiction
  • Binge-eating
  • Compulsive buying
  • Gambling
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences even when doing so creates harm in the long-run“.  Hayes, Strosahl, Wilson, 1999.

Experiential avoidance (a component of the acceptance and commitment therapy [ACT] model of psychological flexibility/inflexibility) is defined as behavior that attempts to ‘alter the frequency or form of unwanted private events, including thoughts, memories, and bodily sensations, even when doing so causes personal harm’ (Hayes, Pistorello, & Levin, 2012, p. 981).

We all have a natural survival instinct embedded within our DNA that creates our aversive reaction to unpleasant or uncomfortable events.  This instinct is hard-wired and tells us to avoid things that are unpleasant because they are likely to put us in danger or hams way.  However, this same instinct affects our internal processes as well, disconnecting the self from thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

For this study, the researchers used online advertisements to recruit a sample of 104 individuals who planned to use a psychedelic substance and a second sample of 254 individuals who planned to attend psychedelic ceremonies. Both samples were used to measure depression severity, experiential avoidance, and suicidal ideation one week before and 4 weeks after using their psychedelic substance of choice.

What was found by Zeifman and his colleagues was that the use of psychedelics in both ceremonial and non-ceremonial settings was associated with decreases in experiential avoidance, which in turn was associated with decreases in depression severity and suicidal ideation 4-weeks after psychedelic use. Psilocybin/magic mushrooms, LSD, and ayahuasca were the most commonly used substances in the study.

“Our findings suggest that one of the reasons that psychedelic therapy has positive therapeutic effects is that it helps individuals to be less avoidant and more accepting of their emotions, thoughts, and memories (even though such experiences may be distressing in the short-term),” Zeifman told PsyPost.

“More broadly, our results provide further support for the negative mental health effects associated with avoidance. This can be summed up with a saying that is often used in the context of psychedelic therapy, that ‘The only way out is through.’”

The study does provide some caveats like most-all studies.

“There were important limitations to our study, including that our study was not conducted in the context of a controlled clinical trial or within a clinical sample. Accordingly, we are currently conducting research where we are comparing the effects of psychedelic therapy versus a traditional antidepressant (called escitalopram) on experiential avoidance. This research will help to further examine the possibility that psychedelic therapy leads to change through different mechanisms than do traditional pharmacological interventions for depression,” Zeifman said.

woman, sad, depression
Photo by StockSnap on Pixabay

The researchers concluded their study with the following summary:

Summary

In sum, despite research suggesting that psychedelics lead to improvements in mental health outcomes, there is currently little understanding of whether psychedelics lead to decreases in depression severity and suicidal ideation within non-clinical samples.

Furthermore, while preliminary research suggests that reductions in experiential avoidance may play a key role in psychedelic therapy, there is currently limited research that has examined the association between decreases in experiential avoidance and positive therapeutic outcomes following psychedelic use.

To address these knowledge gaps, the aims of the present study were: (a) to examine the impact of psychedelic use on experiential avoidance, depression severity, and suicidal ideation; (b) to examine whether reductions in experiential avoidance would be associated with reductions in depression severity and suicidal ideation following psychedelic use. We hypothesized that:

1. Psychedelic use will be associated with decreases in (a) experiential avoidance, (b) depression severity, and (c) suicidal ideation.

2. Decreases in experiential avoidance after psychedelic use will be associated with decreases in (a) depression severity and (b) suicidal ideation.

The intention of this article is not to promote this particular treatment. The primary goal is to provide information, research, and facts so one can make an informed decision. Make sure to view Intel Mindz past and future articles on alternative treatments and what may work best for you.

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