OPEN Foundation

N. Devenot

Cancer at the Dinner Table: Experiences of Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Cancer-Related Distress

Recent randomized controlled trials of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for patients with cancer suggest that this treatment results in large-magnitude reductions in anxiety and depression as well as improvements in attitudes toward disease progression and death, quality of life, and spirituality. To better understand these findings, we sought to identify psychological mechanisms of action using qualitative methods to study patient experiences in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Semistructured interviews were conducted with 13 adult participants with clinically elevated anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis who received a single dose of psilocybin under close clinical supervision. Transcribed interviews were analyzed using interpretative phenomenological analysis, which resulted in 10 themes, focused specifically on cancer, death and dying, and healing narratives. Participants spoke to the anxiety and trauma related to cancer, and perceived lack of available emotional support. Participants described the immersive and distressing effects of the psilocybin session, which led to reconciliations with death, an acknowledgment of cancer’s place in life, and emotional uncoupling from cancer. Participants made spiritual or religious interpretations of their experience, and the psilocybin therapy helped facilitate a felt reconnection to life, a reclaiming of presence, and greater confidence in the face of cancer recurrence. Implications for theory and clinical treatment are discussed.
Swift, T. C., Belser, A. B., Agin-Liebes, G., Devenot, N., Terrana, S., Friedman, H. L., … & Ross, S. (2017). Cancer at the Dinner Table: Experiences of Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Cancer-Related Distress. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 0022167817715966.
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Patient Experiences of Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis

The psychological mechanisms of action involved in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy are not yet well understood. Despite a resurgence of quantitative research regarding psilocybin, the current study is the first qualitative study of participant experiences in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Semistructured interviews were carried out with 13 adult participants aged 22 to 69 years (M = 50 years) with clinically elevated anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis. Participants received a moderate dose of psilocybin and adjunctive psychotherapy with an emphasis on the process of meaning-making. Verbatim transcribed interviews were analyzed by a five-member research team using interpretative phenomenological analysis. General themes found in all or nearly all transcripts included relational embeddedness, emotional range, the role of music as conveyor of experience, meaningful visual phenomena, wisdom lessons, revised life priorities, and a desire to repeat the psilocybin experience. Typical themes found in the majority of transcripts included the following: exalted feelings of joy, bliss, and love; embodiment; ineffability; alterations to identity; a movement from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness; experiences of transient psychological distress; the appearance of loved ones as guiding spirits; and sharing the experience with loved ones posttreatment. Variant themes found in a minority of participant transcripts include lasting changes to sense of identity, synesthesia experiences, catharsis of powerful emotion, improved relationships after treatment, surrender or “letting go,” forgiveness, and a continued struggle to integrate experience. The findings support the conclusion that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy may provide an effective treatment for psychological distress in cancer patients. Implications for theory and treatment are discussed.

Belser, A. B., Agin-Liebes, G., Swift, T. C., Terrana, S., Devenot, N., Friedman, H. L., … & Ross, S. (2017). Patient experiences of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 0022167817706884.
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22 May - Delivering Effective Psychedelic Clinical Trials

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