According to a new study, there may be a way to reduce some of the effects of childhood mistreatment: taking psychedelic drugs.
Being mistreated – whether it comes as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, or some combination of all four – can always leave scars. However, when that mistreatment happens in childhood, the ramifications can be worse, leaving long-lasting impacts on the cognitive, affective, social, and biological development of the victim. Adults who survived childhood mistreatment are often left with emotional dysfunction, low self-esteem, internalized shame, and a host of other personal and interpersonal issues.
By surveying a group of 166 childhood maltreatment survivors, researchers found that a history of using psychedelics – “including, but not limited to: psilocybin “magic” mushrooms or truffles, LSD/“acid”, ayahuasca/yagé, mescaline/peyote/San Pedro, DMT, MDMA/ecstasy, ketamine, or 2 C-B,” notes the paper – was associated with significantly lower levels of complex trauma symptoms and internalized shame. The results were published in the journal Chronic Stress
“There’s an abundance of clinical studies of the therapeutic effects of psychedelics, but few studies have examined the therapeutic potential of psychedelic use in naturalistic (non-clinical) settings,” study author CJ Healy told PsyPost.
“Most of the people in the world who are healing themselves with psychedelics are taking them in naturalistic settings – in nature, with friends, at home, at a rave – and so I wanted to study empirically whether this naturalistic, therapeutic use of psychedelics is also showing benefits in terms of symptom reduction and improvements in self-concept, particularly among people with histories of complex trauma in childhood.”
It's important to note it’s only an association that’s been found – “we can’t say whether the psychedelic use is causing the symptom reduction or, for instance, that people with lower symptoms are for some reason more likely to take psychedelics,” points out Healy. However, the paper hypothesizes that the use of psychedelics might be uniquely suited to treat these symptoms.
“[Childhood maltreatment] has consistently been associated with negative self-concept,” explains the paper. Meanwhile, it notes, “Psychedelics have robustly been shown to profoundly compromise the normal subjective sense of self and, in high doses, occasion 'mystical' states of selflessness, self-transcendence, or 'ego dissolution,' frequently leading to enduring positive changes in mood, personality, and self-concept.”
Strikingly, the paper found that respondents who had used psychedelics five times or more had the lowest levels of complex trauma symptoms and internalized shame. The relationship between these symptoms and emotional abuse and neglect, in particular, was significantly reduced after five instances of psychedelic use.
“Using psychedelics with therapeutic intentions, even in non-clinical settings, may help reduce internalized shame and complex trauma symptoms in people with histories of complex trauma in childhood,” Healy said. “Moreover, these benefits might be more pronounced with repeated use.”
Although the research is only preliminary, Healy intends on carrying out robust future studies that can address some of the current shortcomings in the literature. That means “using samples higher in racial and socioeconomic diversity,” he told PsyPost, “in order to represent the experiences of oppressed and marginalized peoples in our findings.”
“It’s a longstanding problem in psychedelic science that people of color, especially Black people, are dramatically underrepresented in study samples,” he said.
Crucially, it also means the development of longitudinal studies, measuring complex trauma symptoms both before and after psychedelic use. Only then would researchers be able to say with any certainty if the results are mere coincidence, or if the key to healing childhood trauma really does lie in tripping balls.