Benefits of Psilocybin Retreats
Research on psychedelic therapy has been promising so far. Studies from institutions such as Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins, and NYU have found that two sessions with psilocybin plus psychological support can help alleviate various forms of emotional distress.
For instance, many people who have struggled with major depression, and who have not responded well to conventional treatments, finally experience relief following psilocybin-assisted therapy.
Because of the burgeoning research in this field, and the influx of media surrounding it, some people might have the impression that a psychedelic experience in a clinical or research context is the only safe and reliable way to experience the healing and transformative benefits of psychedelics.
However, psilocybin retreat participants often report the same sorts of changes as those seen in clinical trials. Moreover, many people aren’t aware that there is a growing body of evidence to support these claims. While there is, admittedly, limited research in this area, the available studies are still encouraging.
Let’s explore what the latest research has to say about psilocybin retreats and then compare these findings to those of clinical trials.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs aimed to assess whether psilocybin – administered at a retreat – was able to create lasting increases in empathy, creativity, and well-being. This psilocybin was in the form of truffles, which is the hardened mass of mycelium (the root-like structure) of psilocybin mushrooms. At other psilocybin retreats, including Atman, whole dried mushrooms are served.
Participants completed tests relevant to each of the aforementioned domains on three occasions: before ingesting psilocybin, the morning after, and seven days after.
The empathy test consisted of 40 pictures of people in various emotional states: 50% positive and 50% negative. In order to assess cognitive empathy, participants were asked to select the emotion word, out of four words, which matched the emotional state they perceived in the picture. To assess emotional empathy, the researchers asked the participants to rate on a scale from 1 to 9 the statements “How aroused does this picture make you feel” (not sexually aroused, it should be emphasized - arousal in this context refers to general sensitivity to stimuli) and “How concerned do you feel for this person”.
The researchers found that there was no significant effect of psilocybin on cognitive empathy, but there was a significant increase in emotional empathy following the session. Participants felt much more concerned about the people displaying negative emotions. However, these effects had dissipated by day 7.
Compared to baseline, participants were more aroused by the emotional content after the session, in terms of both positive and negative emotions. Increased arousal from negative stimuli – but not positive stimuli – persisted on day 7.
To investigate the effect of psilocybin on creativity, the researchers of the 2019 study observed changes in divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is a classic indicator of creativity; it refers to cognition that leads in various directions as opposed to just one. A thought process that provides someone with many possible solutions to a problem, for instance.
The results show that the main effect of the psilocybin session was an increase in fluency (the ability to come up with more associations) and originality. This increase was also present the morning after. However, these effects did not persist a week later.
Enhancements in creativity matter from a mental health perspective. The authors state:
“Specifically, it has been suggested that DT [divergent thinking] can enhance psychological flexibility by allowing individuals to generate new, more effective strategies that facilitate adaptive interpretations and coping abilities (Forgeard and Elstein 2014). Consequently, the ability of psilocybin to enhance DT sub-acutely could help patients to relive events, recall various associations, and consider their situation from another perspective (Bouso et al. 2008; Frecska, Bokor, and Winkelman 2016; Frecska et al. 2012).”
Improvements in Subjective Well-Being
To gauge the impact of the psilocybin retreat on subjective well-being, the researchers used the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Compared to baseline, satisfaction with life increased significantly both the morning after and seven days after ingesting psilocybin. The authors write, “Based on interpretation scores, results suggest that psilocybin ingestion increased individuals’ LS [life satisfaction] from “average” to “high” until at least seven days after use.”
One interesting finding was that those participants who had previous experiences with psilocybin reported a significantly higher quality of life at baseline compared to those who hadn’t had any experience with the compound.
The authors also note the ways in which enhanced empathy can help improve people’s well-being: “The ability to share, celebrate, and enjoy others’ positive emotions correlates with increased prosocial behavior and well-being.”
Separate research, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, found that psilocybin-assisted therapy was associated with significant increases in well-being, which persisted when at the two-month and 14-month follow-up point.
Reductions in Anxiety
A 2022 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that taking psilocybin in a retreat setting led to reductions in anxiety for attendees.
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of psychiatric disorder in Western countries. These conditions include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In the 2022 research, retreat attendees were asked to complete a battery of tests at three separate occasions: before the ceremony (baseline), the morning after, and one week after. These tests included questionnaires measuring state and trait anxiety (an anxious reaction to a situation and anxiety as a lingering part of someone’s personality, respectively), mindfulness capacities, and personality.
The researchers discovered that psilocybin use resulted in medium reductions in anxiety the morning after the ceremony, which persisted over a one-week period. At one-week post-ceremony, aspects of the mindfulness scale increased while the personality trait neuroticism decreased.
The study also reveals that the degree to which participants felt their ego dissolve and reductions in neuroticism were the strongest predictors of decreases in state and trait anxiety. The authors state, “In sum, results suggest rapid and persisting (up to 1 week) anxiolytic effects in individuals with sub-clinical anxiety symptoms.” They add, “To understand whether these effects extend to wider populations suffering from heightened anxiety, and the mechanisms involved, further experimental research is needed.”
A 2020 meta-analysis published in Psychiatry Research also showed that psilocybin can lead to large reductions in anxiety symptoms. In addition, research from Johns Hopkins has found that psilocybin can ease end-of-life anxiety in patients with terminal cancer.
The “Ceremony Study” Reveals the Benefits of Psilocybin Retreats
Imperial College London collaborated with Synthesis Retreat on a research project called the “Ceremony Study”.
The goal was to produce quantitative analysis of the experiences that participants had during a psilocybin retreat. Between April and December 2018, data was collected before and after each psilocybin session at a retreat. The data collection focused on:
• Mental well-being
• Depression and anxiety
• The lived experience of the retreat
• Mystical experiences
Using clinical study questionnaires, data was gathered at six different points in time:
1. Baseline: two weeks before the psychedelic experience
2. Four hours before
3. The morning after
4. Two days after
5. Two weeks after
6. Four weeks after
The results showed that psilocybin led to:
A reduction in depressive symptoms
(It’s worth noting that Synthesis did not accept anyone with a clinical diagnosis of depression.) There are now multiple clinical trials that have shown psilocybin can effectively alleviate major depression, with research demonstrating that these benefits can persist for up to a year for most patients. Researchers have proposed that alterations to different mechanisms – both psychological and neural – can help people escape the rut of rumination that characterizes depression.
Enhanced connectedness with oneself and others
Rosalind Watts, former clinical lead for Imperial College London’s psilocybin for depression trial, developed the Watts Connectedness Scale with a team of fellow psychedelic researchers. This scale was created in response to the improvements to the sense of connection to self, others, and, the world reported by participants in clinical trials of psychedelic therapy. These researchers believe that these improvements are associated with improved mental health outcomes following psychedelic use.
Changes in personality
These included significant increases in agreeableness and emotional stability. Another study likewise found that psilocybin led to significant decreases in neuroticism. One study also found that the personality trait openness significantly increased after a mystical experience with psilocybin. This trait involves being imaginative, curious, creative, attentive to inner feelings, attracted to novelty, and opposed to authority.
Clinical trials have revealed that the magnitude of psilocybin-induced mystical effects is related to the degree of improvements to people’s quality of life, meaning in life, depression, anxiety, and addiction. Since it is possible to have a mystical experience at a psilocybin retreat, many participants may experience the same benefits as those observed in clinical trials.
Attendees experience powerful insights about themselves, their problems, their past, and what they’d like to change about their lives. In clinical trials, psychedelic-induced insight has been strongly associated with reductions in depression and anxiety. These insights have also been beneficial for people struggling with alcoholism: the more insightful their psychedelic experience, the more likely it was that they would reduce their alcohol consumption. Similar results have been found in studies looking at how psilocybin-induced mystical states can help people with tobacco addiction.
The Bottom Line
There are many important differences between clinical research trials on psilocybin-assisted therapy and non-clinical psilocybin retreats. However, moderate to high doses of psilocybin are provided in both, as well as support before, during, and after the experience.
What is becoming clear, in general, is that psilocybin retreats have the potential to act as a major catalyst for positive change in people’s lives. As the legal landscape surrounding psychedelics continues to evolve, we will start to see not just psychedelic clinics opening but more retreats as well, reflecting people’s wishes for a wider variety of options.
The good news is that safe, legal, and carefully structured psilocybin retreats already exist, like those offered by Atman in Jamaica.
It is much safer to have a powerful psychedelic experience at a retreat than to do it alone. The higher the dose of a psychedelic, the more important it is to have psychological support at hand. Facilitators at retreats help keep participants physically safe and emotionally balanced during intense psychedelic experiences.
If you would like to experience the healing potential of psilocybin, in a legally sanctioned and safe setting, then a retreat is certainly worth considering. As we have seen, the research so far indicates that you stand to gain a lot from the experience, not just during the session but in the long term as well.