Psychedelic, near-death experiences ease fear of death

People who’ve had a psychedelic experience and those who’ve had a near-death experience that didn’t involve drugs report less fear of death.

People in both groups also reported that the experience had a lasting positive effect, providing personal meaning, spiritual significance, and psychological insight.

The survey study of more than 3,000 adults appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

The results are consistent with several recent clinical trials showing that a single treatment with the psychedelic psilocybin produced sustained decreases in anxiety and depression among patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis.

The author of the new survey conducted the largest of these trials (Griffiths et al., 2016) at Johns Hopkins University. That study, a randomized trial of 51 patients with cancer who had clinically significant anxiety or depressive symptoms, demonstrated that receiving a controlled, high dose of psilocybin given with supportive psychotherapy resulted in significant increases in ratings of death acceptance, as well as decreases in anxiety about death.

For the present study, the researchers analyzed data gathered from 3,192 people who answered an online survey between December 2015 and April 2018. Participants were divided into groups: 933 individuals had non-drug-related near-death experiences, and the rest of the participants had psychedelic experiences, which were prompted by either lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) (904), psilocybin (766), ayahuasca (282), or N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) (307). Participants were predominantly white (85%) and mostly from the United States.

Compared with the non-drug group, there were more men in the psychedelic group (78% versus 32%), and they tended to be younger (32 versus 55 years of age) at the time of the experience.

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 being 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.

Source: Johns Hopkins University