Based on tons of scientific studies, the therapeutic effects of Psychedelics are now evident, but it is still a mystery how Psychedelics produce such therapeutic effects. According to Psychedelic researchers, one common thread between Psychedelic experiences and mental illness is the experience of death or the underlying themes of death and death anxiety.
Recently a group of Australian researchers conducted a study to speculate a potential mediating relationship. According to the authors of the study, there are some psychopathologies for which the link to death anxiety may seem obvious. For example—panic disorder and panic attacks often involve a fear of heart attack or a sudden feeling of danger. Death anxiety also correlates with generalised anxiety disorder, alcohol use disorder, depressive disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Several previous studies have found evidence for causality rooted in increased participant anxious and phobic behaviour when primed with mortality salience or the awareness that death is inevitable. The study authors noted that the underlying fear of death remains unaddressed by many existing mental health treatments, contributing to their continuation. While Psychedelics have been found to reduce death anxiety, particularly in cases of terminal illness, there is less existing evidence on how they complete that goal.
How Psychedelics reduce death anxiety and existential distress
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself of the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life—and only then will I be free to become myself.”—Martin Heidegger.
Psychedelic substances produce the experience of death and make the consumer familiar with the whole process of death; according to Psychedelic researchers, this is a profound experience that holistically contributes to the overall mental health of the consumers. Not many researchers described how exactly Psychedelics experiences make the consumers address the death experience and reduce death anxiety.
Sam G. Moreton, the lead author of the study, has suggested a variation of the following five factors of that mechanism. And these are:
- Forced confrontations with mortality,
- Reduced focus on the self,
- Shifting metaphysical beliefs about human consciousness,
- Amplified religious faith, and
- Increased feelings of connectedness and meaning-making
According to Moreton, the impact of any of these factors, much like the Psychedelic experience itself, depends on the individual in question, as well as the set and setting of the session.
- First, confronting death anxiety, much like exposure therapy, is thought to reduce the fear of dying over time. Study authors proposed that Psychedelics, in particular, provide a unique opportunity to confront fears of death, which is the central role of ego dissolution. This living experience of death transcends traditional therapeutic exposure to mortality-related thoughts. Surrender to the Psychedelic experience mimics that of surrender to near-death experiences, which have been found to provoke attitude changes and decrease fear of death.
- Second, the study lead author mentioned that reduced focus on the self applies to mortality, as it is an egocentric concern. When Psychedelic experiences put the universe into perspective, the self and its concerns feel small.
- Third, the authors explained further that when an individual experiences ego death, it introduces the idea that there is an existence beyond the typical known physical experience of life and death. Whether or not this is true or can be proven outside of the Psychedelic session, it can lead to the belief that consciousness transcends death. This has been found to present as long-term agreement with statements such as, “death is a transition to something even greater than life” post-Psilocybin treatment. Transcending death may reduce anxiety induced by death as a final destination, thereby combatting fear-based mental illness.
- Fourth, Psychedelics often induce experiences related to religious visions. These can align with one’s religious beliefs or traditions other than their own. Individuals may feel that they saw God or possibly feel they are God. Religiosity can, in turn, reduce the effects of mortality salience, including distress. Given this effect, Moreton hypothesised that Psychedelic-induced religious experiences could buffer against distress related to the death anxiety that underlies many mental illnesses.
- Fifth, and most importantly, Psychedelics promote a feeling of oneness with the universe, natural world, and other fellow human beings. As with ego death, the idea that a person is not bound by their physical form and can live on through other sources resembles a “symbolic immortality”. It may seem likely that feeling connected to the world increases the meaning one assigns to different aspects of their life. In fact, people rate their Psychedelic experience as among the most meaningful in their life. Furthermore, meaning in life acts as a buffer to death anxiety and effects of mortality salience.
As Psychedelic research evolves, researchers will continue to investigate how these substances invoke beneficial therapeutic effects. The relation of death anxiety to both Psychedelic experiences and mental health has led researchers to hypothesise it as a possible mechanism through which the two interact; however, there is a lack of research about death anxiety as a causal variable. The authors, therefore, urge that their presented hypothesis and reasoning justify future research to this end.
- Carhart-Harris RL, Erritzoe D, Haijen E, Kaelen M, Watts R. Psychedelics and connectedness. Psychopharmacology. 2018;235(2):547-550. doi:10.1007/s00213-017-4701-y
- Dechesne M, Pyszczynski T, Arndt J, Ransom S. Literal and symbolic immortality: the effect of evidence of literal immortality on self-esteem striving in response to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003;84(4):722-737. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.522
- Drolet J-L. Transcending death during early adulthood: symbolic immortality, death anxiety, and purpose in life. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 1990;46(2):148-148. doi:10.1002/1097-4679(199003)46:2<148::aid-jclp2270460205>3.0.co;2-t
- Fadiman J. The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide. Park Street Press; 2011.
- Finch EC, Iverach L, Menzies RG, Jones M. Terror mismanagement: evidence that mortality salience exacerbates attentional bias in social anxiety. Cognition & Emotion. 2016;30(7):1370-1379. doi:10.1080/02699931.2015.1065794
- Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Richards WA, et al. Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2018;32(1):49-69. doi:10.1177/0269881117731279
- Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Richards WA, Richards BD, Mccann U, Jesse R. Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: immediate and persisting dose-related effects. Psychopharmacology. 2011;218(4):649-665. doi:10.1007/s00213-011-2358-5
- Griffiths RR, Richards WA, Johnson MW, McCann UD, Jesse R. Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2008;22(6):621-632. doi:10.1177/0269881108094300
- Griffiths RR, Richards WA, McCann U, Jesse R. Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology. 2006;187(3):268-283. doi:10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5
- Heflick NA, Goldenberg JL. No atheists in foxholes: arguments for (but not against) afterlife belief buffers mortality salience effects for atheists. The British Journal of Social Psychology. 2012;51(2):385-392. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02058.x
- Iverach L, Menzies RG, Menzies RE. Death anxiety and its role in psychopathology: reviewing the status of a transdiagnostic construct. Clinical Psychology Review. 2014;34(7):580-593. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2014.09.002
- Jonas E, Fischer P. Terror management and religion: evidence that intrinsic religiousness mitigates worldview defense following mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2006;91(3):553-553. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2063
- Leary T, Metzner R, Albert R. Psychedelic Experience:A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. University Books; 1964
- Lifton RJ. The Broken Connection : On Death and the Continuity of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1979.
- Menzies RE, Dar-Nimrod I. Death anxiety and its relationship with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 2017;126(4):367-367. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/abn0000263
- Menzies RE, Sharpe L, Dar-Nimrod I. The relationship between death anxiety and severity of mental illnesses. British Journal of Clinical Psychology. 2019 Nov; 58(4): 452-467. doi:10.1111/bjc.12229
- Moreton SG, Szalla L, Menzies RE, Arena AF. Embedding existential psychology within Psychedelic science: reduced death anxiety as a mediator of the therapeutic effects of Psychedelics. Psychopharmacology. 2020 Jan; 237(1): 21 32. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-019-05391-0
- Noyes R Jr. Attitude change following near-death experiences. Psychiatry. 1980;43(3):234-242. doi:10.1080/00332747.1980.11024070
- Noyes R. The human experience of death or, what can we learn from near-death experiences? Omega. 1983;13(3):251-259. doi:10.2190/DKHY-N1C3-XXA0-G7M5
- Pahnke WN. The Psychedelic Mystical Experience in the Human Encounter with Death. Harvard Theological Review. 1969;62(1):1-21. doi:10.1017/S0017816000027577
- Piff PK, Dietze P, Feinberg M, Stancato DM, Keltner D. Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2015;108(6):883-899. doi:10.1037/pspi0000018
- Pollan M. How to Change Your Mind : What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. London: Penguin Books; 2019.
- Reiche S, Hermle L, Gutwinski S, Jungaberle H, Gasser P, Majić T. Serotonergic hallucinogens in the treatment of anxiety and depression in patients suffering from a life-threatening disease: a systematic review. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry. 2018;81:1-10. doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2017.09.012
- Rieger D, Frischlich L, Hogden F, Kauf R, Schramm K, Tappe Erzsébet. Appreciation in the face of death: meaningful films buffer against death-related anxiety. Journal of Communication. 2015;65(2):351-372. doi:10.1111/jcom.12152
- Routledge C, Juhl J. When death thoughts lead to death fears: mortality salience increases death anxiety for individuals who lack meaning in life. Cognition & Emotion. 2010;24(5):848-854. doi:10.1080/02699930902847144
- Strachan E, Schimel J, Arndt J, et al. Terror mismanagement: evidence that mortality salience exacerbates phobic and compulsive behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2007;33(8):1137-1151. doi:10.1177/0146167207303018