Presentation Title

Mechanisms of Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy for Existential Distress Associated With Cancer


In blinded placebo controlled trials, psilocybin has been associated with significant and lasting decreases in anxiety and existential distress among individuals with life-threatening cancer (Griffiths et al., 2016; Ross et al., 2016). To provide a fuller account of psychological mechanisms of psilocybin experiences of 13 research participants, data collected by Ross et al. (2016) were further analyzed using Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis methods (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009). Hypotheses regarding psilocybin’s capacity to facilitate self-transcendent and mystical states through a metacognitive process of decentering will be presented. This presentation will discuss safety considerations related to psilocybin administration in clinical research settings and in its translation to clinical practice. Although legal barriers restrict the current clinical use of psilocybin to research contexts, the findings of this study may be used to inform practitioners who deliver care to cancer patients and individuals with life-threatening illnesses. The psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy paradigm has the potential to complement the delivery of psychological treatment for individuals whose diagnosis precipitates debilitating existential distress and who are seeking to assimilate the existential reality of cancer into their lives.

Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Carducci, M. A., Umbricht, A., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., … Klinedinst, M. A. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30(12), 1181–1197.

Ross, S., Bossis, A., Guss, J., Agin-Liebes, G., Malone, T., Cohen, B., Mennenga, S., Belser, A., Kalliontzi, K., Babb, J., Su, Z., Corby, P., & Schmidt, B. (2016). Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30(12), 1165–1180.

Smith, J.A., Flowers, P., & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, method and research. London: Sage Publications