Preliminary research indicates that psychological flexibility may play an important role in explaining why the use of psychedelic drugs is associated with reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms. The new findings appear in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science.

Research has shown that psychedelics given during psychotherapy sessions can help people with depression and anxiety. But the mechanisms behind this are still unclear.

“Emerging evidence support the possibility that psychological flexibility is an important theory that could inform clinical practice with psychedelic assisted psychotherapy,” said study author Alan K. Davis, an assistant professor at The Ohio State University and adjunct assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“We conducted this study to test the theory that psychedelics would increase a person’s psychological flexibility and that such changes would be associated with improvements in depression/anxiety.”

Psychological flexibility describes the ability to connect with the present moment and manage one’s feelings. People with a high degree of psychological flexibility tend to disagree with statement such as “I worry about not being able to control my worries and feelings” and “my painful memories prevent me from having a fulfilling life.”

The researchers surveyed 2,120 individuals who had used a psychedelic drug, such as psilocybin, LSD or DMT. Of this sample, 985 participants indicated that they had experienced a change in anxiety or depression as a result of a psychedelic experience.

The researchers found that people who believed the psychedelic experience led to meaningful psychological insights (such as realizing how current feelings were related to past events) tended to report increased psychological flexibility after the experience. Increases in psychological flexibility were in turn related to decreases in depression and anxiety.

“Psychological flexibility is about being open to your moment-by-moment experiences, being present in your life, and doing what matters in the face of barriers/obstacles including emotional ones. Psychedelic experiences are associated with increasing one’s ability to engage in this way,” Davis told PsyPost.

“Therapies exists that also target this process (e.g., Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and so we should consider applying this therapeutic approach to psychedelic therapy in order to maximize possible positive effects of treatment.”

The study only represents a “first step in understanding these relationships,” Davis added. “We need to conduct long-term studies in laboratory settings in order to further establish this theory.”

The study, “Psychological flexibility mediates the relations between acute psychedelic effects and subjective decreases in depression and anxiety“, was authored by Alan K. Davis, Frederick S. Barrett, and Roland R. Griffiths.