Treatment for prolonged grief often involves cognitive behavioral therapy to help people start to move on and engage in meaningful activities again while they continue to cope with the grief. “It’s not about taking grief away,” Dr. O’Connor said. “It’s about learning how to live with the fact that you are a person who has waves of grief now.”
Using Psychedelics for Grief
Scientists think that psychedelics work in two ways: through their chemical effects on the brain and the subjective experiences a person has while on the drugs. For many people, psychedelics act like “a very intense, fast psychotherapy,” Dr. Woolley said.
Psychedelics “have this potential to induce these transpersonal states of consciousness where people might feel like they are connected” to the deceased relative or friend, added Greg Fonzo, co-director of the Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy at Dell Medical School, University of Texas at Austin. “That might allow people to move past some of the stuckness that occurs when they’re in this phase of grief.”
In the brain, scientists think that psychedelics induce a “plastic state,” helping to rapidly form new connections between cells. Those new connections may be behind the insights and reprocessing that people can experience when they use the drugs in a therapeutic setting.
There are very few published studies focusing on psychedelics’ effect on people experiencing prolonged grief. In one of the few relevant trials, Dr. Woolley looked at whether psilocybin, combined with group therapy, could help older, long-term AIDS survivors process their depression and survivor’s guilt surrounding their diagnosis, as well as the loss of friends and family to AIDS. The 2020 study, which included just 18 men, assessed the participants’ levels of demoralization — a therapeutic term for an existential sense of hopelessness and loss of meaning in life. Most of the participants had experienced profound grief and trauma because of the AIDS epidemic; on average, the participants had lost 17 loved ones to the disease.
After one psychedelic therapy session, nearly 90 percent of the men experienced a reduction in demoralization, and many saw a decrease in symptoms of PTSD and complicated grief. In a follow-up paper describing the men’s subjective experiences, the researchers wrote that psilocybin was “a catalyst for reconstructing their identities from rigidly centered on their past traumas to more flexible and growth-oriented life narratives.”
“The people in our study often talked about feeling stuck and detached from people around them and not able to move forward,” Dr. Woolley said. The psilocybin “did seem to help them move forward, to become unstuck and start being more engaged in life.”
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