You may not know what MDMA is, but chances are you’ve heard of it. To the medical community, MDMA is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine. On the streets, this so-called party drug goes by a few different names—Molly, the love drug, and ecstasy to name a few.
As a psychedelic Schedule I narcotic, MDMA is illegal. But its potent effects on the brain have brought it to the attention of researchers as a possible treatment for depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Let’s look at how MDMA works and the potential medical benefits of MDMA therapy for PTSD.
How Does MDMA Affect the Brain?
MDMA stimulates the neurotransmitters or “feel good” hormones, especially serotonin, in your brain that help regulate mood and emotion. The synthetic drug also interacts with another part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala processes emotions, but its main job is controlling the flight or fight response. MDMA may help decrease a user’s response to a threat while simultaneously boosting empathy, pleasure, self-awareness, and euphoria.
According to the National Institute of Health, psychiatrists used MDMA in the late 1970s to help patients gain insights about themselves through self-exploration. Nearly forty years after it was deemed highly addictive and declared illegal, researchers are taking a second look at MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of mental health disorders such as:
- Alcohol addiction
- Life-threatening illnesses like cancer or terminal disease
What is MDMA-Assisted Therapy?
MDMA-assisted therapy allows patients to explore traumatic memories and feelings without the lingering fear or negative emotions attached to them. In a 2016 study, participants on MDMA reported increased self-authenticity and decreased social anxiety, and felt more comfortable opening up about their problems. Another advantage of MDMA-assisted therapy is the 45-minute time frame for a single dose to take effect compared to six weeks for traditional anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication.
There are risks associated with MDMA that cannot be discounted. MDMA’s signature increase of serotonin is followed by a drop-off in serotonin levels immediately after, leading to depression and suicidal behavior. MDMA can also interact with antidepressants and other drugs, so it’s crucial for those seeking treatment to follow doctors’ advice.
Traditional Therapies for PTSD
Traumatic events can test the limits of our ability to cope. Once reserved for veterans or soldiers, trauma touches many people across the spectrum.
- Domestic violence such as assault, rape, and physical or emotional abuse
- Childhood abuse
- Natural disasters
- Mass shootings
- Car crashes
These events or circumstances can trigger panic, fear, and anxiety. For some, these symptoms eventually fade over time. For others, they spill over into daily life, making it impossible to concentrate, work, sleep, or interact with others and lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is no known cure. Once diagnosed, it’s a lifelong process of psychotherapies and medication to help develop stress management skills and reduce PTSD symptoms.
The Evidence for MDMA Therapy for PTSD
Doctors have been researching psychedelic drugs as a viable treatment for psychiatric disorders for decades. Some believe MDMA is the one-two punch needed to help patients overcome PTSD. In 2017, the FDA granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation status to MDMA for PTSD treatment. This opened the door to one of the largest studies of the illegal drug in combination with psychotherapy.
Police officers, combat veterans, and firefighters with chronic PTSD signed up for the Phase 3 trial of MDMA therapy for PTSD. The findings, published in Nature’s Medicine, showed 88% who received three MDMA-assisted therapy sessions experienced a meaningful reduction in symptoms of PTSD, while 67% no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis.
How Would MDMA-Assisted Therapy Sessions Work?
MDMA may be fast-acting, but therapy sessions are long. Patients receive a 125mg dose to start. The dose can put the patient in a self-reflective and safe state of mind for up to eight hours, allowing significant time for therapeutic work. Sometimes, a half-dose may be given two hours after the first if doctors feel it’s necessary.
MDMA-assisted therapy patients may need two to three sessions over 12 weeks to see results. If it’s approved, the drug will only be administered in an office setting under the watchful eye of a psychotherapist. In early 2022, the FDA expanded treatment clinical trial access to MDMA for PTSD across the U.S. Applications are still being accepted in the US, Canada, and Israel.
Researchers hope the results could clear the way for FDA approval of this breakthrough-designated therapy in 2023.
Speak to a Doctor About MDMA for PTSD
If you have PTSD or other mental health disorders, talk to a mental health professional about MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD. MDMA is still being studied, and there are still unknowns about the drug’s interaction with preexisting conditions and current psychotherapy medications. MDMA is illegal, and the drug you find on the street is not the same medicine trained psychotherapists administer. Self-medication is not recommended, but there are tools you can use now to help relieve symptoms of PTSD.
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