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Rewiring the Brain After Trauma: How to Use Psychedelic Mushrooms for PTSD

Written by: Fae Chubin and the Mushroom Tao team

Back to all

Rewiring the Brain After Trauma: How to Use Psychedelic Mushrooms for PTSD

Written by: Fae Chubin and the Mushroom Tao team

By rewiring the brain, psychedelic mushrooms can relieve trauma symptoms and offer lasting results. Read to learn how to use psychedelic mushrooms for PTSD.

There aren’t many people who go through life without encountering some sort of traumatic event. Unlike ordinary hardships, traumatic events threaten a person’s sense of safety and produce effects that can stay with them for a lifetime.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) refers to the lingering effects of trauma on our neurobiology and well-being. Most current treatments for PTSD help improve the symptoms but fall short of healing the deep-seated wounds that cause the disturbing effects.

That was the reality for most survivors until new research began to shed light on the healing potential of MDMA and psychedelic mushrooms for PTSD and trauma resolution.

In this blog, we’ll explore how psilocybin mushrooms, commonly known as magic mushrooms, can heal trauma by rewiring the brain. You’ll learn:

  • the different types of trauma
  • how trauma impacts our brain and nervous system
  • the ability of psilocybin mushrooms to shift our common trauma responses
  • the existing research on psilocybin therapy for treating PTSD and trauma resolution

In the end, we’ll challenge some misconceptions about trauma. If you have experienced trauma in your life, it’s important to know that trauma doesn’t have to impact your life forever. Research shows that many survivors experience “post-traumatic growth.” Survivors can turn their trauma into an opportunity for growth, a more meaningful life, and a deeper connection to others.

But first, let’s define what trauma is and discuss the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What Are Trauma and PTSD?

Most people think trauma is the event that happens to them. But it's not. Trauma is what happens inside our minds and bodies as a result of a traumatic event.1 Trauma is the wound we carry inside.

Natural disasters, accidents, sudden loss of a loved one, childhood neglect, and sexual violence are some examples of traumatic events that turn people’s lives upside down. Trauma is the separation of the self that may occur due to a catastrophic event.

There are different types of trauma depending on the kind of events we experience and the unique imprint they leave on our minds:2

  • Acute trauma is the intense distress we feel following a sudden and dramatic one-time event such as a car crash or sexual assault.
  • Chronic trauma happens when harmful events are experienced repeatedly and over a long period of time. This trauma can be caused by repeated bullying or abuse or witnessing violence in our household.
  • Adverse childhood experiences can also lead to trauma. Child abuse, emotional neglect, poverty, loss of a parent, or divorce can leave long-lasting effects on people who experienced difficult events as children. That’s because children have not yet developed effective coping mechanisms.

In any case, traumatic events can deeply impact our neurobiology and make overcoming distressing feelings very difficult. Read on to learn the effect a traumatic event has on our brain and how psilocybin mushrooms can reverse that effect.

Trauma’s Impact on the Nervous System

When a stressful and disturbing event happens, the amygdala, a structure of the brain that detects threats, becomes activated.3 Our brain then sends messages to the body to prepare itself for defense. The autonomic nervous system receives these messages and prepares us for a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. These responses ensure our survival, and they’re completely out of the control of our conscious mind.

But not everyone responds to a traumatic event the same. For some people, when the crisis ends, the distressing feelings they experience — anger, shock, confusion, stress — will diminish. Eventually, that experience might fade from their memory.

But for others, the distressing feelings don’t go away. That’s because the amygdala remains hyperactive. The brain overreacts to any minor event, leading to the chronic secretion of stress hormones. This can lead to lingering emotional disturbances such as an anxiety disorder, intense feelings of shame, dissociation, and depression.

Those who are unable to resolve the feelings associated with trauma develop PTSD. That’s when a person continues to experience vivid and intrusive memories of the traumatic event that occurred to them. This can lead to hypervigilance, anger and aggression, nightmares, or mood disturbances.4

Researchers found that the stress circuity in the brain of people with PTSD veers off the expected course, disrupting the communication between different brain centers. The amygdala — which monitors possible threats — remains hyperactivated.

Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex — the brain's executive center — becomes underactivated. When this happens, the prefrontal cortex can’t slow the amygdala down when it notices the threat is gone. The hippocampus, where our memories are formed and processed, is also impacted.

As a result of all these changes, the connection between the different nerve centers is undermined. A person with PTSD can lose their psychological flexibility and stay stuck in trauma responses even when experiencing ordinary events.5 This can completely disrupt a person’s day-to-day life.

"After processing the trauma and cultivating growth, many survivors experience a shift in mindset. They come to appreciate life in a whole new way and deepen their relationship with others and themselves."

Now that we know the impact of trauma on the nervous system, we can better understand the mechanisms of treating trauma with psychedelic mushrooms. Let’s find out what psychedelic mushrooms are and how they can change our habitual trauma responses.

Treating Trauma with Psychedelic Mushrooms

Not long ago, magic mushrooms were only seen as party drugs or associated with the countercultures of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Now, psilocybin mushrooms are designated as “breakthrough therapies” for conditions such as treatment-resistant depression and major depressive disorder.6 The promising result of research on the healing capacity of these mushrooms has led to important legislative developments, such as the legalization of psilocybin therapy in the states of Oregon and Colorado.

New studies are investigating the potential of psilocybin therapy for treating PTSD and helping with trauma resolution. But how does psilocybin impact our brain and mental health?

When we experience trauma, we become conditioned to fear situations that remind us of the original threat. Patients with PTSD show a reduction in neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to adapt and change over time, particularly in the hippocampus, where memories are formed and retrieved.

Psilocybin is known for its ability to generate neuroplasticity
. New neurons are strengthened, which then rewire the brain by overriding the habitual responses caused by trauma.

Hippocampal neuroplasticity is very important for fear extinction — our brain’s ability to learn not to respond fearfully to the stimuli that we were conditioned to respond to with terror.7

One study looked into the impact of psilocybin on fear extinction by studying mice. Researchers conditioned two groups of mice to feel fearful and freeze in response to a sound stimulus. Two days later, both groups of mice received fear reduction training. However, only one group received a single dose of psilocybin. The research showed that the psilocybin-treated mice showed significant improvement in fear extinction compared to the untreated ones.8

When researchers dissected and analyzed the mice’s brains, they noticed that the psilocybin-treated mice had dendrites similar to the untraumatized mice. Dendrites are tree-like neural structures that help with communication between neurons. The group of traumatized mice that did not receive psilocybin showed a significant decline in their brain’s neural communication function.

The mice study shows the restorative impact of psilocybin and the potential of psychedelic mushrooms for PTSD treatment. But what does research on psilocybin therapy tell us about its potential for treating trauma in humans?

Psilocybin Therapy for PTSD

Clinical trials that look into the effect of psilocybin therapy on trauma are still in progress.9 However, we know that psilocybin therapy shows a great deal of promise for treating a cluster of symptoms such as depression and anxiety that are part and parcel of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to increasing neural connectivity, psilocybin also enhances the effect of psychotherapy and helps with trauma resolution. When we have a traumatic experience, we might find ourselves unable to access and process emotions related to the trauma.

Psilocybin-assisted therapy helps people process the emotions that trauma blocks. By increasing our sense of empathy, connection, and unity, psilocybin promotes healing and restores the beauty and health of the inner world.10

People who have consumed psilocybin also report feeling a sense of ego-dissolution when their “ordinary sense of self is replaced by a sense of union with an ultimate reality.”11 This often generates a deeply meaningful and mystical experience.12

The mystical aspects of psychedelic experiences, such as feeling one-ness or gaining an expanding perspective of life, have been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression.13

Researchers also used surveys to look into the impact of psilocybin on people with adverse childhood experiences. They found that those who consumed psilocybin experienced less psychological distress. Another study showed that the lifetime use of psilocybin was associated with a lower chance of experiencing a major depressive episode.14

From PTSD to Post-traumatic Growth

Traumatic events can leave deep wounds and scars on our mind, body, and nervous system. But this deep distress can also create unintentional and profoundly meaningful changes in one’s understanding of self, others, and the meaning of life.

This is not to undermine the severity of the pain that comes with trauma. Instead, we can acknowledge that following a trauma, one can experience both distress and unimaginable growth.

If you have experienced trauma, it’s important to know that your life doesn’t need to be defined by that experience. Shifting out of victimhood into the identity of a survivor can lead to what researchers refer to as “post-traumatic growth.”15

After processing the trauma and cultivating growth, many survivors experience a shift in mindset. They come to appreciate life in a whole new way and deepen their relationship with others and themselves.

Psilocybin mushrooms support these spiritual, mystical, and meaningful transitions in emotions and perspectives.
They also rewire the brain by enhancing neural connections so that our neurobiology no longer conditions us to relive that trauma or suffer from depression and anxiety.

Since psilocybin has a safe and low-addiction profile, mental health professionals and researchers are very optimistic about its therapeutic potential. But like any powerful psychedelic, it’s important to approach magic mushrooms with caution and reverence.

If you want to use psilocybin therapeutically, set and setting are important elements of a safe and effective psychedelic experience. Set and setting refer to your mindset and the physical and social environment where you consume psilocybin. It’s very important to feel safe, empowered, and comfortable during your psychedelic experience. Since psilocybin can bring up repressed memories of past trauma, the presence of a trained professional is very important when using psychedelic mushrooms for PTSD.

If you want to connect with expert psilocybin facilitators, the Mushroom Tao team can answer your questions and guide you through your psilocybin experience. You will also find a wide range of educational materials on the Mushroom Tao blog.

References:

  1. Are we mislabeling our trauma? Why Dr. Gabor Maté believes we need to change the way we think about pain
  2. Trauma | Psychology Today
  3. Trauma | Psychology Today
  4. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder | Psychology Today
  5. Investigating the role of psychological inflexibility, mindfulness, and self-compassion in PTSD
  6. Psilocybin – a promising therapy for treatment-resistant depression?
  7. The centrality of fear extinction in linking risk factors to PTSD: A narrative review
  8. Harnessing Psilocybin to Treat PTSD
  9. Study protocol of an open-label proof-of-concept trial examining the safety and clinical efficacy of psilocybin-assisted therapy for veterans with PTSD
  10. Psychedelic Psychotherapy: Building Wholeness Through Connection
  11. Self unbound: ego dissolution in psychedelic experience
  12. Awe: a putative mechanism underlying the effects of classic psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy
  13. Therapeutic role of psilocybin and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine in trauma: A literature review
  14. Psilocybin Eases Psychological Distress In People Who Experienced Childhood Trauma, Study Suggests
  15. Post-Traumatic Growth | Psychology Today

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