Mind

Psychedelic Drugs and Near-Death Experiences Decrease Fears of Dying

A new study could inform the clinical treatment of end-of-life anxiety.

By Sam WaltersAug 24, 2022 7:00 PM
Light at the End of a Tunnel
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We will all die one day, but that doesn’t mean we approach death in a universal way. Instead, we tend to think about death and dying differently, which we may attribute to our culture, spirituality, age and wellness, as well as a variety of other factors.

A new paper published in PLOS ONE assesses the impact of two very distinct sources — psychedelic drugs and near-death experiences — on our attitudes about death and dying. Suggesting that the two alter attitudes in similar, assuaging ways, the findings could someday play a part in clinical care for fading patients.

The Death of Fear

A plethora of past studies show that psychedelic drug experiences and near-death experiences have dramatic effects on people’s attitudes about death. But, despite these dramatic effects, relatively little research has evaluated the impact of these experiences side-by-side.

That is, until now. Comparing the influence of psychedelic drug experiences and near-death experiences for one of the first times, a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that the two shared a similar impact.

“Not only can the features of psychedelic experiences be similar to near-death experiences,” says Roland Griffiths, a study author and professor at Johns Hopkins, in a press release, but “both are rated as among the most meaningful lifetime experiences, and both produce similar enduring decreases in fear of death and increases in well-being.”

According to the team, these findings could inspire innovations in the use of psychedelics to treat a wide variety of issues, including end-of-life anxiety.

Effects of Attitude-Altering Experiences

The researchers analyzed survey responses of more than 3,000 individuals who reported that their attitudes toward death changed after a psychedelic drug experience involving lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and a host of other substances or after a near-death experience.

Their analysis revealed similarities between the impact of both experiences. For instance, the majority of the 2,259 responders who reported psychedelic drug experiences and the 933 responders who reported near-death experiences said that their experiences were meaningful, with the latter group seeing their brushes with death as the single most important moment in their lives. Furthermore, both groups said that their experiences reduced their overall fear of death.

According to the team, additional study could strengthen their conclusions. “Overall,” the researchers say in their analysis, “the present findings, which show that both psychedelic and non-drug-occasioned experiences can produce positive and enduring changes in attitudes about death, suggest the importance of future prospective experimental and clinical observational studies to better understand mechanisms of such changes as well as their potential clinical utility.”

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