Can Psychedelics Heal Addiction?

Exploring the healing potential of psychedelics for addiction

Martin O'Toole
8 min readJul 5, 2023
Cusco psychedelic mural image by author

As one who discusses my recovery from addiction publicly, I’ve been asked on many occasions how someone who was once addicted to drugs can responsibly promote the use of psychedelic plant medicines, which some folks also refer to as “drugs”. You see, for many — usually those with no experience of the ceremonial or clinical application of psychedelic medicines — the idea is preposterous.

Keen as I am to promote the metamorphic magic that psychedelics offer those suffering from mental illness, I’d like to explore whether psychedelics can be a healing tool for addiction. So, join me on a wee ramble around the potential benefits of working with plant medicines and other psychedelic substances.

Are Psychedelics Effective in Treating Addiction?

Throughout our lives, we construct a dense layer cake of identity shaped by conditioning and personal experiences. It’s a complex and challenging heap to unravel. While there’s no quick fix for everlasting happiness, there is growing interest in using psychedelics to facilitate profound changes in our egoic states. Many individuals report experiencing an “ego death” during their initial encounters with these substances, a process where the illusory layers of identity are shattered, revealing the true Self beneath. The transformative potential of psychedelics has garnered attention from academia, governments, and the people. Thus, addressing common misconceptions is essential.

“All psychedelic practice is, in essence, purification”.

— Chris Bache, PhD, Bestselling author, professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngstown State University

Challenging Preconceived Notions

Firstly, it’s crucial to debunk the notion that psychedelics are inherently dangerous or addictive. Many negative experiences, commonly called “bad trips,” occur when these powerful healing medicines are misused in recreational settings or combined with alcohol and other substances. To ensure safe and beneficial experiences, it is vital to approach psychedelics with respect and always follow the three golden rules:

  1. Consider your mindset before working with these medicines.
  2. Carefully choose your setting — environment and co-practitioners.
  3. Properly research your facilitators and guides to ensure their credibility.

Secondly, the idea that only folks suffering from severe mental illness engage in psychedelic therapy is baseless. Mental health issues exist on a spectrum, and many of us grapple with various undiagnosed neuroses that impact our daily lives and those around us. The normalisation of unhealthy behaviours contributes to the misconception that psychedelics are exclusively for those with diagnosed mental illnesses. In reality, these substances hold the potential for healing and growth for everyone. And while we’ll be waiting the best part of a decade for authorised academic research to quantify it, shamans and psychedelic practitioners have been attesting to this fact for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Of course, safety is crucial along these lines, explaining the need for cautious research. However, one wonders how many people and their families will continue to suffer needlessly as they are legally denied access to these incredible compounds until science and government catch up.

Exploring the Healing Potential

Beyond the layers of egoic identity lies a deeper essence — a peaceful, knowing, and connected being buried beneath the mental clangour of life’s experiences. For some, this pure Self is seldom seen. Though, it’s all too familiar for meditators and others practising ancient alternative mindful modalities. While it’s essential to approach psychedelics with reverence, these substances offer a more rapid and transformative solution, allowing individuals to excavate this buried Self and initiate often rapid and powerful healing.

My Journey of Healing

I’m no guru nor a PhD. I’m merely a man on the mend. Perhaps if I possessed a framed certificate, it would communicate expertise in suffering through co-created chaos (is that a BSc or a BA?). I was trapped in the cycle of addiction and depression, struggling with mental illness for decades. I had constructed a complex web of identity built on conditioning and past traumas that began in childhood. In 2018, aged 42, I attended a short ayahuasca (DMT) and huachuma (Mescaline) retreat. Little did I know this would change my life forever.

Like many “psychonauts” working responsibly with these medicines, I experienced an “ego death” or “dissolution” during my first sittings (ceremonies). Here, the illusory layers of identity that had defined me for so long were shattered, revealing a profound sense of connection to something greater than myself. At that moment, I understood that my addiction and mental illness were not my true essence but imprints of past experiences and societal conditioning. They were merely symptoms of a deeper sickness acquired in childhood following years of emotional abuse. Trauma upon trauma accrued from there, with compound interest, at a high cost to many and me.

My journey with psychedelics allowed me to revisit past traumas, viewing them from a fresh perspective, devoid of the weight of conditioning, thanks to the medicines’ temporary removal of my default mode network (DMN). This cerebral reboot showed me the impermanence of my pain so I could see that healing was within reach as I let my suffering go. Free from the grips of addiction and the shackles of depression and anxiety, I rebuilt my life.

“Ayahuasca is not a drug in the Western sense; something you take to get rid of something. Properly used, it opens up parts of yourself that you usually have no access to. The parts of the brain that hold emotional memories come together with those parts that modulate insight and awareness, so you see past experiences in a new way”.

— Dr Gabor Maté, Bestselling author and lecturer University of British Columbia

Psychedelics and the DMN

Neuroscience shows that psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), ayahuasca, and LSD significantly reduce the brain’s default mode network activity. This reduction contributes to psychedelics’ profound therapeutic effects.

For the layperson, the default mode network is a web of interconnected brain regions associated with introspective functions and self-directed thought processes, such as self-reflection and theory of mind.

The DMN is considered essential for normal consciousness (or unconsciousness, depending on your perspective) behaviour. In MRI studies, the DMN lights up when individuals are left to their own thoughts. The DMN’s development process is gradual, with its full activation typically occurring around the age of five when a child develops a stable (or unstable) sense of self or “ego”.

As we mature, our brain establishes habitual pathways of communication within the DMN and other regions. Over time, these communication patterns become more constrained, shaping our “default mode” of operating in the world and influencing our perception of reality. So, what if that default mode has been designed through a series of unhealthy and traumatic experiences?

Psychedelics have shown the ability to reduce DMN activity and disrupt its associated negative thought patterns, such as depression, anxiety, and OCD. Simon Ruffell, a Psychiatrist and ayahuasca researcher, likens psychedelics’ effects on the DMN to “defragmenting a computer”. When psychedelics are ingested, DMN activity decreases, while connectivity in other brain regions lights up like a Christmas tree.

So, brain imaging studies suggest that psychedelics induce a temporary shutdown of the sense of self and reduce rumination. The observed brain states during psychedelic experiences resemble deep meditative states, where increased activity occurs in pathways that do not typically communicate. Afterwards, the DMN becomes more cohesive. According to the science, this disruption of the DMN’s activity may contribute to the reduction of anxiety and depression. Or, in my case, it “wipes” the hard drive, paving the way for a comprehensive process of unlearning.

Psychedelic Research

A study at London’s Imperial College examined the impact of psilocybin-assisted therapy on people suffering from severe depression. The results showed a significant reduction in the malady for up to three months following the therapy.

These findings highlight psychedelics’ potential to disrupt the default mode network and change negative thought patterns, with subsequent therapeutic benefits for mental health conditions.

That’s one of many studies to which one can refer. Other studies include:

  • A study by Moreno et al. (2006) found that psilocybin led to improvements in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms within 24 hours of treatment.
  • Grob et al. (2011) study of the use of psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety and depression in end-stage cancer patients demonstrated significant reductions in anxiety at three months and depression at six months.
  • Johnson et al. (2014) conducted a study on the effects of psilocybin in long-term chronic smokers. The results showed that 80% of participants remained abstinent after six months.
  • Gasser et al. (2014) investigated the use of LSD in reducing anxiety linked to life-threatening diseases. They observed significant decreases at two months, sustained for twelve months.
  • Bogenschutz et al. (2015) explored the use of psilocybin in treating alcohol dependence. The study observed a significant decrease in drinking behaviours for up to nine months.
  • Osorio Fde et al. (2015) and Sanches et al. (2016) studied the effects of Ayahuasca on major depressive disorder, showing significant decreases in depressive symptoms for up to 21 days.

The list goes on, and as alluded to earlier, it will grow exponentially in the coming years. But will it come soon enough? What of the cost for such grinding delays in decriminalising the healing potency of nature?

“The history of human use of plants, mushrooms, and animals for their psychedelic effects is far older than written history and probably predates the appearance of the modern human species.”
Rick Strassman, MD, Bestselling author and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine

Embracing the Potential

Despite early, highly promising studies, research was halted in the 1950s. However, these medicines’ promise is finally gaining recognition thanks to organisations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Furthermore, the work of authors like Michael Pollan and thought leaders like Dennis McKenna and Paul Stamets have contributed to a psychedelic renaissance.

Although, some therapists may be hesitant to provide these therapies due to potential income reductions. Perhaps, surprisingly, a 2021 study (Marseille et al.) showed that 75 per cent of therapists said they would be unlikely to provide psychedelic therapy if it meant a reduction in income. Though, with the adage “one cup of ayahuasca is like ten years of therapy” in mind, perhaps it’s not that surprising at all. As Deepak Chopra once said: “All great changes are preceded by chaos”, and the Change Express has definitely left the station.

Psychedelics have the potential to catalyse rapid healing and transformation, offering an alternative approach to traditional psychotherapy. By embracing psychedelics’ potential, we open doors to a future where mental health treatment is revolutionised, and individuals can find lasting relief from their struggles.

The Future

Regardless of your experience or position, one cannot ignore the intriguing possibility of psychedelics as a healing tool for addiction. By dispelling misconceptions and acknowledging the transformative potential of these substances, we pave the way for a new understanding of mental health treatment.

It’s important to approach psychedelics with respect and caution, working with knowledgeable facilitators in appropriate settings. When used responsibly, these substances offer profound insights, facilitating healing and metamorphosis of the human condition.

Captain JT Kirk said that space is the final frontier, where we might “seek out new life and new civilisations; to boldly go where no one has gone before”. But then, as Rumi countered a few centuries earlier, “Maybe you are searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots”. The solution to treating the symptoms of trauma has been growing in fields, jungles, and pastures around the world since the dawn of time. Psychedelics are as natural as the maladies from which we suffer — biotechnology, miraculously designed to help us evolve. Perhaps, if we focus more on the roots of our collective sickness, we can fast-track wholesale healing and, in the process, wave a fond and firm farewell to many a mental illness.

“Psychedelics are not suppressed because they are dangerous to users; they’re suppressed because they provoke unconventional thought, which threatens any number of elites and institutions that would rather do our thinking for us”.

— Dennis McKenna, Bestselling author, ethnopharmacologist, research pharmacognosist and lecturer

Writing isn’t my hobby; it’s how I make a living. So, if you enjoyed this, please consider following me for similar psycho-spiritual ramblings about life as a Samsaric citizen.



Martin O'Toole

Psychedelic integration coach and counsellor, How To Die Happy author, podcaster, and mental health advocate writing about healing and the Anatomy of Happy.