Ecstasy research: Scientists find MDMA could help tackle pathological self-criticism

MDMA or “ecstasy” can help reduce self-criticism and increased self-compassion, according to preliminary research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The findings demonstrate how the outlawed club drug could potentially be helpful in the treatment of psychological disorders when combined with other forms of therapy.

Self-criticism is a normal part of the human experience — but sometimes criticizing oneself can get out of hand. Excessive self-criticism is feature of a number of psychological disorders, the United Kingdom researchers note in their study, including eating disorders, depression, social anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.

“Finding effective ways of dealing with self-criticism therefore remains a priority for psychiatry and clinical psychology,” the researchers said. “Various lines of research support the use of self-compassion-enhancing strategies to overcome the effects of self-criticism. Yet, for some individuals the initial experience of self-compassion, even in therapeutic settings, can be challenging.”

Scientific research — and a mountain of anecdotal evidence — already established that MDMA elicits pro-social feelings, such as compassion and a sense of connection with others. This new study suggests that those pro-social feelings can also be directed at oneself.

The study by Sunjeev K. Kamboj and his colleagues investigated whether MDMA could enhance Compassion-Focused Therapy. The creator of this relatively new form of psychotherapy, British clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert, described it as “an integrated and multimodal approach that draws from evolutionary, social, developmental and Buddhist psychology, and neuroscience” in a 2009 paper.

In the study, twenty recreational MDMA users participated in psychotherapy sessions on two occasions — once having consumed MDMA and once having not consumed it. During the sessions, the participants listened to three guided compassionate imaginary exercises through headphones for about 18 minutes. The exercises were designed to direct compassionate feelings towards the self by having participants imagine the “ideal compassionate being” and then imagine themselves interacting with it.

The researchers found that self-criticism dropped by 10 points on average after the compassionate imaginary exercises. But the use of MDMA appeared to double the effectiveness of the exercises. The researchers found a 21-point decrease when the exercises occurred after MDMA use.

The use of MDMA also appeared to be particularly effective for participants who scored high on measures of attachment avoidance. These are people who do not feel comfortable being “close” with another person. Attachment avoidance refers to an emotional withdraw from relationships to avoid frustration and disappointment.

“The unique subjective and interpersonal-affiliative effects of ecstasy seem to be accompanied by a facilitation of positive intrapersonal relating, potentially allowing individuals who typically attempt to ward off compassionate feelings to apprehend the hated, feared or wounded parts of the personality with gentleness and understanding,” Kamboj and his colleagues wrote. “This type of approach-motivation towards enfeebled aspects of the self simply mirrors intentional empathic behaviour between individuals, directed at relieving another’s suffering.”

Due to the study’s limitations, however, the researchers warn they “cannot yet claim that our findings are a strong basis for supporting the combined therapeutic use of MDMA and compassion-focused psychotherapeutic procedures.” They hope to follow-up on their research with well-controlled, randomized, double-blind trials — if the government allows it.