Psychedelics may reduce the fear of dying and death, comparable to feelings reported by individuals who have had near-death experiences.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine compared psychedelic experiences with non-drug-related near-death experiences in a survey study of more than 3,000 individuals and discovered striking parallels in people’s views about death. Both sets of survey respondents claimed to have less fear of dying and death as a result of the experience. Additionally, they reported that the encounter had a long-lasting positive impact by providing them with a sense of purpose, spiritual importance, and psychological insight.
The study was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The findings are in line with a number of previous clinical studies that have shown lasting improvements in anxiety and depression among cancer patients with a life-threatening diagnosis produced by a single dose of psychedelic psilocybin. The authors of this study carried out the largest of these trials (Griffiths et al., 2016) at Johns Hopkins Medicine. That study, a randomized trial involving 51 cancer patients with clinically significant anxiety or depressive symptoms, showed that receiving supportive psychotherapy along with a controlled, high dose of psilocybin significantly increased ratings of acceptance of death and decreased anxiety about death.
The researchers analyzed data from 3,192 individuals who responded to an online survey between December 2015 and April 2018. Groups of participants were split into groups: 933 people experienced non-drug-related near-death experiences, while the remainder had psychedelic experiences triggered by lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) (904), psilocybin (766), ayahuasca (282), or N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) (307). The majority of participants (85%) were white and from the United States. The psychedelic group had a higher percentage of males (78% vs. 32%) and younger average age (32 vs. 55) at the time of the experience than the non-drug group.
Similarities between the groups include:
- About 90% of participants in both groups reported a decrease in fear of death when considering changes in their views from before to after the experience.
- Most participants in both groups (non-drug group, 85%; psychedelics group, 75%) rated the experience to be among the top five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant of their life.
- Participants in both groups reported moderate to strong persisting positive changes in personal well-being and life purpose and meaning.
Differences between the groups include:
- The non-drug group was more likely to report that their life was in danger (47% versus the psychedelics group, 3%), being medically unconscious (36% versus the psychedelics group, 10%), or clinically dead (21% versus the psychedelics group, less than 1%).
- The non-drug group was more likely to report that their experience was very brief, lasting five minutes or less (40% versus the psychedelics group, 7%).
The researchers say that future studies are needed to better understand the potential clinical use of psychedelics in ameliorating suffering related to fear of death.
Reference: “Comparison of psychedelic and near-death or other non-ordinary experiences in changing attitudes about death and dying” by Mary M. Sweeney, Sandeep Nayak, Ethan S. Hurwitz, Lisa N. Mitchell, T. Cody Swift and Roland R. Griffiths, 24 August 2022, PLOS ONE.