No one is denying that there is a drug problem taking place right now, but illegal substances aren’t the only ones ruining lives. In 2020, 30.2 million Americans used benzodiazepines, a highly addictive anti-anxiety medication. Over a million of those who took this drug were children under the age of 17, and about 400,000 were under two years old. This class of drugs numbs people’s emotions rather than addressing the root problem of anxiety. Psychedelics are a safe alternative that helps people learn to cope with difficult emotions to live a fulfilled life without depending on a daily dose of a mind-numbing drug. 

I challenge you to find me a person who has never experienced anxiety. Everyone has dealt with it at some point in their life. Perhaps you’ve felt a knot in your stomach before walking into an important meeting or felt the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and your shoulders tense as you walked alone to your car late at night. Anxiety is an inescapable part of the human experience. It is a biological mechanism designed to help keep us safe. It is crucial for survival, but when it goes unchecked it can become detrimental to feelings of security– the very thing that it is meant to protect. 

Anxiety is more than just a mental state. When the mind fears something, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode. All available energy is redirected to help fight or run from the perceived risk. Digestion and cell regeneration slow while the heart rate rises and the body is pumped with adrenaline. This is an important biological response if there is a physical threat, like a vicious dog or a mugger on the streets late at night. However, when the mind becomes stuck in a perpetual state of fear, the body’s functions are severely compromised. Staying in the fight or flight mode long-term can cause issues with memory, focus, muscle tension, and heart health. Many people live in this state and suffer physically and mentally because of it.

Over the last few years, there has been a huge rise in chronic anxiety. A great deal of fear spread across the globe along with the Covid-19 virus and global mental health is paying the price. According to the US Census Bureau: “Compared to U.S. adults in 2019, U.S. adults in April and May 2020 were more than three times as likely to screen positive for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or one or both, with more than one out of three screening positive for one or both.” Talk therapy is often the first line of treatment for anxiety disorders, and works for many people. But, Benzodiazepines (commonly called “Benzos) are also commonly prescribed to help people cope with anxiety, and the side effects can be detrimental. 

Benzos work as a central nervous system depressant. They slow brain activity, which eases anxiety, but also makes the brain less sensitive to stimulation. This can cause judgment impairments and make it dangerous to drive. People taking benzos may experience drowsiness, memory issues, motor function impairment, and coordination loss. While helping to ease anxiety, they also impair people’s ability to function in their day-to-day life. This drug is not meant for long-term use, yet it is often prescribed long-term. 

Long-term use causes dependency, just like opioids. The body quickly adapts to the drug and requires higher doses to continue feeling the effects. A person taking benzos daily will quickly become physically dependent on the drug. Once the body is dependent, quitting can cause withdrawal symptoms. 20-50% of people using the drug will experience withdrawal symptoms such as vomiting, increased anxiety, and even heart palpitations. Because they cause physical dependence, the chance of leading to addiction is high. 

Benzodiazepines have a high rate of abuse, which can be dangerous. According to the CDC,” Benzodiazepines were involved in nearly 7,000 overdose deaths in 23 states from January 2019–June 2020 – 17% of all drug overdose deaths.” With a growing rate of people suffering from chronic anxiety, new treatments with lower addiction rates are needed. Psychedelics have shown promise in studies to help relieve anxiety without having to consume the substance daily, and with little to no addiction risk.

Psychedelics for Anxiety

Psychedelics help people move past anxiety by getting to the root cause of their distress and helping them overcome it. Psychedelics act similarly to some forms of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A guided trip on LSD or psilocybin can help patients uncover the thought patterns, core beliefs, and behavioral issues that are causing their anxiety. Along with the help of conventional therapy, this can help people change the thoughts and behaviors that are causing them distress.

Thoughts are powerful. They cause the brain to fire in different areas. If someone is constantly stressed, the amygdala becomes overactive. The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotions. Stress causes the amygdala to signal the hypothalamus to release adrenaline, which triggers the physiological “fight or flight” response. 

Both psychedelics and benzodiazepines have effects on the GABA system. GABA is a neurotransmitter that stops messages that cause stress and anxiety. Benzos increase levels of GABA, causing calming effects. The brain becomes dependent on the drug to produce GABA and slows its’ natural production. This can lead to increased anxiety when going off the drug. Early research has shown that psilocybin and Ketamine may also increase levels of the neurotransmitter, but without causing dependency. 

The anti-anxiety effects of psychedelic-assisted therapy can create long-term effects from just a few sessions. Because they are not addictive or habit-forming, it is a much safer treatment for anxiety. The risk of overdose and abuse is next to nothing. Psychedelics have the potential to help people suffering from anxiety disorders overcome them, not just cope with them. 

Companies Working on Solutions for Anxiety

Though there are not many studies specifically looking at psychedelic treatment for anxiety disorder, many people have found success in treating general anxiety disorder and OCD. Field Trip Health already has clinics across the US, Europe, and Canada using therapy-assisted ketamine treatment for generalized anxiety disorder. Compass Pathways is working to develop a psychedelic-assisted therapy model, using their patented psilocybin compound COMP360, to treat a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety. They are currently undergoing clinical trials for treatment-resistant depression, but plan to expand its use to treat anxiety.

Atai Life Sciences is another company looking into anti-anxiety treatments, however, their most notable prospect is not psychedelic at all. One of their companies, GABA therapeutics, has patented their compound GRX-917 to treat anxiety and other central nervous system disorders. The compound acts similarly to Benzodiazepine, without any recorded side effects. It is similar to a drug called etifoxine which has been used as an anti-anxiety medication for the last 60 years in over 40 countries but is not approved by the FDA. This highlights the need for psychedelic companies to work alongside traditional modes of treatment. 

The goal of psychedelic treatments for mental health issues is to provide people with solutions that don’t require them to take harmful drugs. The most positive psychedelic treatments include traditional therapy to help patients through the process and integrate their experiences. Mental health is a complex issue that many people are struggling with. Psychedelic companies are working to find new solutions to the issue that provide long-term healing and help people get back to living their lives.