8 Jul 2020

The link between psychedelic drugs and social connection

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 8 July 2020

Psychedelics can allow people to make meaningful connections and heal active trauma in the body in a way pharmaceuticals cannot, a psychiatrist says.

Connection is everything, says psychiatrist and psychedelic researcher Dr Julie Holland. Something happens in our brains when we feel disconnected and medications like antidepressants can only do so much.

MDMA pills distributed by drug dealer seized by legal authority.

Photo: 123RF

Dr Holland looks at how psychedelic drugs, including LSD, and MDMA may help people reconnect, in her book Good Chemistry: The Science of Connection, from Soul to Psychedelics.

She tells Jesse Mulligan alienation from our human essence as social beings is at the core of modern mental distress, which leads to physical illnesses as the body's nervous system attempts to cope with it. There is an emerging acceptance that psychedelics can play a role to addressing this.

“There have been a lot of people who have had therapeutic or healing experiences with mushrooms or MDMA and certainly a lot of people are comfortable with the idea that cannabis can have therapeutic applications,” she says.

Her use of the word 'soul' in her book isn't pseudo-scientific and she says it's used philosophically to describe an immeasurable quality that is our as essence as humans.

“The word soul has been co-opted so much by capitalist companies that I feel like it’s OK for doctors to take that word back. If I asked someone ‘what nourishes you, what feeds your soul’, people understand what that means,” she says.

 “We can accept that there is something intangible that animates us. What good chemistry talks about is that there are times when these intangible things connect.

“There’s a name namaste, which is basically the soul in me recognises the soul in you, or the light or the deep divine in me recognises that you have the same thing. We are really starved of these deep soul-to-soul connections and we’re all gorging ourselves on things that don’t really feed our souls.”

When our soul or essence isn't integrated and has been separated through trauma or another damaging process, we suffer consequences, she says.

“Our minds, bodies and I would say our souls, don’t do well when we are disconnected from each other.”

In a digitalised modern world, a drive towards superficial connections devoid of genuine human connection has been highlighted in bold type during the Covid-19 global lockdowns, she says.

“We gorge on social media without actually being social. It’s like eating fruit loops instead of fruit. We’re designed for the real natural thing and we’re subsisting on the synthetic version."

She gives an example of using internet porn, which releases chemicals telling our brain we are sexually satisfied, so that we feel no compulsion to go out and find a real person to have a sexual connection with. The bonding chemicals released after climax may even deepen our empty relationship with our computer screens.

"Then there are more pharmacological examples," she says. "For example, people using opiates, which give you the sensation that you are being held, stroked and attended to, loved and cared for. The opiates mimic the brain chemistry that you would get if you were being stroked and loved and attended to… Others will gorge on comfort food, or reality TV shows…”

The deep human need and longing for connection has profound historical evolutionary drives also.

“We’re wired really to want to feel connected to feel like we belong. If you’re kicked out of the tribe you don’t have anyone to help you get food or build shelter you are really on your own and back in the day on the Savannah there were hunters and gatherers and if you were excluded from the tribe you would die. So, we’re still kind of hardwired that when we’re shunned and ostracised our bodies go into fight or flight and when you’re in this mood it’s really bad for your body."

Being disconnected and the anxiety this induces has devastating long-term physical effects, leading to chronic illnesses.

"Being disconnected puts you in the sympathetic mood and over time, if you are chronically in this fight or flight state it’s terrible for your metabolism, for your immune system and it’s also really bad for your social skills. It ends up cycling on itself. When you’re in fight or flight your social skills are bad and you’re more suspicious and paranoid and you end up even more isolated,” she says.

The role of psychedelics in tackling loneliness and disconnection is becoming more apparent to researchers Holland works knows. The drugs seem to offer a gateway to feeling that we have a cosmological purpose and belonging and that we are not alone in the world. 

“For a lot of people, when they have a ‘peak experience’, when they have a mystical experience from psychedelics there’s a sense at the peak that everything is connected and that you are connected along with it. You belong in the universe … and the thing that connects everything is love," Holland says.

“So, you have these big mystical pronouncements and a lot of people who come away from psychedelic experiences feeling very connected to a powerful source of love or energy that is universal and there’s this really deep understanding or knowing that we are all interconnected and inter-dependent.

“And not just that, but these psychedelics enable neural plasticity, where your brain does a little bit of rewiring and house cleaning and new connects grow between brain cells. "

She says cannabidiol (CBD) creates anti-inflammatory effects and neural plasticity without radically altering perceptive states. Neural plasticity offers a window to becoming 'reborn' in a way, recreating our sense of self and means of interpreting our experience of the world.

She says research around MDMA is focused around treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

“That’s no question that we don’t have very good treatments for PTSD, they’re really inadequate and I would also say that a lot of people who are taking dose of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety pills, the truth is sometimes these medicines are really just band aids.

“You’re not really getting to the core of why you are having this anxiety or depression. For a lot of people there’s a history of childhood trauma that really needs to be fully processed and released and these are medicines that facilitate the processing of childhood trauma.”

She says psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy can get at the core underlying causes of despair, trauma-responses and disconnection.

People should be able to grow and ingest their own plants to self-medicate, Holland says.

“They come from nature and we should be able to interact with nature however we choose so long as we’re not harming anyone… I think it’s safe to say that the plant medicines have a wider margin of safety than the synthetic medications.”

Although people with certain mental health conditions, like psychosis, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia are at risk of triggering or worsening their conditions if they used these substances.

Hollands says there are increasing studies like the ones she’s been involved in that show the efficacy of using psychedelics, but she says we aren’t at a stage yet where the drugs could be prescribed or mainstreamed as part of therapy or treatment.

Other methods of soothing the parasympathetic nervous system and breaking free from the fight or flight mode include floating in water, music, spending time with pets, especially dogs, breathing through your nose and exhaling longer than you inhale, affirmations of love, showing empathy and compassion, and any meaningful human contact.

“You want to be on the side of the nervous system that allows you to rest and digest, sleep, have sex and be social.”