What Do We Know About Psychedelics and Grief?

September 30, 2022 11:13:51

Similar to grief, psychedelics can create profound experiences by inducing change through intense responses to emotional stimuli. Grief and psychedelics are said to be similar, because they are both enveloped in folklore mysticism and societal taboos. Additionally, they are both a natural, ancient and delicate human experience.

Thus far, we know that grief is a bodily and emotional traumatic event that can rewire an individual’s brain, similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. When an individual forms a bond with another person, changes in how some proteins are folded in the brain’s nucleus accumbens occur. The nucleus accumbens is responsible for stress, sexual behavior, feeding and addiction to drugs, playing a role in the human reward system. Drugs such as cocaine and heroin can activate and sometimes disrupt this reward system.

Over time, an individual’s neurons fire in a particular pattern, which is also applied to this bond they have. When the bond lacks or a person dies, the loss causes a shock to the person’s nervous, reward, physiological and limbic systems.

Lisa M. Shulman, a neurologist, defines grief as an evolutionary adaptation that promotes survival when one is faced with emotional trauma.

This differs from everyday notions about grief, such as the Kübler-Ross model. This model, which is usually referred to as the five stages of grief, was introduced in 1969 by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The model discusses the stages an individual goes through when trying to process a loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

While the model does provide insights into grief, it is shaped by the emotions an individual who is dying experiences rather than the emotions of an individual who is  grieving experiences.

It was actually David Kessler, Kübler-Ross’ protégé, who touched on the gap’s in the model when he authored Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. This step provides a link between grief and a life that is more emotionally balanced and fulfilling. This is mainly done by adapting to the shock brought on by grief and obtaining meaning from it. This is similar to the meaning-reconstruction theory, which demonstrates that individuals can rethink and reshape their experiences of loss to initiate personal growth and recovery.

This theory appears simple, but it isn’t, especially because it requires that an individual look into themselves and form or develop bonds in the brain.

Psychedelic-assisted therapies help with this by helping grieving individuals overcome their grief. They do so by making it easier for individuals to access pivotal events and memories that have negatively impacted their reward systems, allowing them to reconstruct the memories in a positive way.

This is probably the reason why so many psychedelics companies, including Field Trip Health Ltd. (NASDAQ: FTRP) (TSX: FTRP), are focusing their drug development efforts on how these compounds can treat mental health indications.

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