In the 1960s, clinician and pain researcher Dr. Eric Kast noted the benefits of LSD for end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients. The psychedelic drug helped the patients talk freely about their death in a way that was “most beneficial to their own psychic states.” 1
At the time, clinical research into psychedelic drugs was booming, only to come to an abrupt when the United States passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. This act also paused research into LSD and anxiety—until recently.
In 2014, Dr. Peter Gasser studied LSD and anxiety among people with life-threatening diseases. He noted the inadequacies of psychological treatment for people at the ends of their lives. 2 Gasser’s study suggests that LSD may help ease the existential distress of dying. Here’s what this preliminary research suggests, including what we know about the potential of other psychedelics for palliative care.
First, let’s talk about LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as acid).
LSD is a psychedelic compound that shifts your sense of reality and self. It causes hallucinations, distorted perceptions of space and time, and an altered perception of your environment. The psychedelic experience (or trip) lasts about 10 hours.
Research suggests that LSD may have therapeutic benefits for addiction treatment (such as alcohol dependence), and it may promote the discovery of meaningful personal insights. 3,4 In part, these effects stem from LSD’s ability to shift a person’s perspective about themselves and the world around them (also known as ego death).
LSD’s therapeutic effects may derive from its ability to produce mystical experiences. The term “mystical experience” refers to experiences that promote a sense of transcendence or unity with the universe. 5
This might sound pretty high-concept, but pilot studies suggest that LSD might help patients accept their death—a promising path forward for end-of-life therapy.
What Is End-of-Life Anxiety?
Also known as death anxiety, end-of-life anxiety refers to the emotional, existential distress that people experience toward the end of their life.
People experience end-of-life anxiety symptoms differently. They might feel: 6
- Anxious about the loss of meaning or purpose in life
The American Cancer Society notes that these feelings are normal, and talking about them can help people cope. However, 4.8 percent of patients with advanced cancer meet the criteria for anxiety, compared to 3.1 percent of the general population. 7
That gap suggests a need for treatments that help patients with terminal illnesses die with dignity. Ongoing research explores whether psychedelic therapy is a new way forward.
How Can LSD Help End-of-Life Anxiety?
LSD helps change a person’s emotional state and worldview, which may help them feel less anxious and fearful of death.
Gasser investigated the combination of LSD and psychotherapy (talk therapy) in patients with anxiety associated with life-threatening diseases. (It was also the first LSD study approved by the FDA in 40 years.)
The study had a small sample size of 10 participants, and one participant wasn’t included in the final results. Patients participated in two LSD experiences with the assistance of therapists, who guided them through the session and held an integration session the following morning.
Most participants reported less fear of death and positive personality changes, such as a sense of openness and relaxation. They also reported reduced anxiety, which lasted as long as one year after their LSD experiences.
Although more clinical research is needed to establish LSD’s therapeutic effects for terminally ill patients, Gasser’s study is promising.
Who conducted the study?
Gasser is the lead researcher. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) funded the trial, and the Beckley Foundation, a psychedelic research organization, co-sponsored the study.
As of this writing, one other clinical trial is studying LSD and anxiety. Gasser is investigating LSD treatment in people suffering from anxiety with or without life-threatening diseases. The study was completed in December 2021, but results have not yet been posted.
Can Other Psychedelics Help with End-Of-Life Anxiety?
Studies have investigated psilocybin and MDMA for end-of-life anxiety.
Psilocybin therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression with lasting benefits (six months or more). 6 Similarly, a pilot study showed that MDMA reduced anxiety compared to a placebo. 8
These are preliminary findings that help inform future research, so it’s too early to say whether psychedelics are the next miracle drug in end-of-life therapy. However, their potential is extraordinary, especially if psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy can help improve a person’s quality of life during such an emotional time.
In pilot studies, psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin have been shown to help reduce a person’s emotional distress about death.
This potential benefit is a big deal for end-of-life therapy. It suggests that experimental treatments like LSD-assisted psychotherapy may help a person process and cope with the complex emotions associated with a terminal illness.
More clinical research is needed to inform future treatments, but the pace of psychedelic research in this space is promising.
1. Kast EC, Collins VJ. Study of lysergic acid diethylamide as an analgesic agent. Anesth Analg. 1964;43:285-291.
2. Gasser P, Kirchner K, Passie T. LSD-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with a life-threatening disease: a qualitative study of acute and sustained subjective effects. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2015;29(1):57-68. doi:10.1177/0269881114555249
3. Fuentes JJ, Fonseca F, Elices M, Farré M, Torrens M. Therapeutic Use of LSD in Psychiatry: A Systematic Review of Randomized-Controlled Clinical Trials. Front Psychiatry. 2019;10:943. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00943
4. Griffiths RR, Hurwitz ES, Davis AK, Johnson MW, Jesse R. Survey of subjective “God encounter experiences”: Comparisons among naturally occurring experiences and those occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT. PLoS ONE. 2019;14(4):e0214377. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0214377
5. Grof S, Goodman LE, Richards WA, Kurland AA. LSD-assisted psychotherapy in patients with terminal cancer. Int Pharmacopsychiatry. 1973;8(3):129-144.
6. Rosenbaum D, Boyle AB, Rosenblum AM, Ziai S, Chasen MR, Med MpP. Psychedelics for psychological and existential distress in palliative and cancer care. Curr Oncol. 2019;26(4):225-226. doi:10.3747/co.26.5009
7. Spencer R, Nilsson M, Wright A, Pirl W, Prigerson H. Anxiety disorders in advanced cancer patients: correlates and predictors of end-of-life outcomes. Cancer. 2010;116(7):1810-1819. doi:10.1002/cncr.24954
8. Wolfson PE, Andries J, Feduccia AA, et al. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of anxiety and other psychological distress related to life-threatening illnesses: a randomized pilot study. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):20442. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-75706-1