Can MDMA Psychotherapy Really Reverse Trauma?

Trauma is a difficult issue that many people have to deal with in modern society. According to The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, trauma is defined as the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event (CAMH, n.d.). While sometimes brushed off, these jarring experiences lead to issues for many people as processing, understanding and coming to terms with trauma can be difficult. Traditionally the response and treatment to trauma involves counseling and other behavioral therapy, as well as prescription medication to alleviate some of the associated symptoms such as depression and anxiety (Web MD, n.d.). However,  research suggests that there might be promise in  MDMA. It appears as if MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine), when administered in a medical setting by a trained clinician, people are able to revisit, reanalyze, and overcome their difficult experiences, leading them to engage with life in a new way. 

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has received an increasing amount of attention and funding through the work of organizations such as The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). It’s proponents attribute its success to the state it puts people into. MDMA is understood to be an entactogen, which is a substance that produces feelings of “being touched within” (Oxford, n.d.). The current literature describes its ability to reduce fear and defensiveness, increase communication, empathy and compassion (MAPS, n.d.). It’s no surprise then that this state is conducive for healing. What seems to make such a difference is it allows people to revisit their traumatic memories without intense emotional baggage and inhibitors that can sometimes accompany traumatic memories. This then, is where our contemporary understanding of memory really comes into play. Scientists have found that each time we access a memory, we not only remember the events and what happened, but also modify this memory to an extent as it gets stored again. By revisiting and reprocessing them people seem to have an increased ability to come to terms with their experiences, and re-solidify their memories without the same intensity as they once held (Feduccia, 2018). 

Currently MDMA is in phase three clinical trials in the United States, which could result in this treatment being approved and available by 2023. This current research is focused specifically on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has thus far had promising results. A population that has recurved particularly interested is those of veterans and first responders. Working in such high stress environments leads to much higher rates of PTSD for people who work in these fields, and some of the initial research that has been done has focused specifically on them. One study showed strong effects at various doses of the drug, with the 86% most effective, moderate dose, group now longer showing symptoms of PTSD (Slomski, 2018). Another study aimed more broadly at anyone with chronic PTSD, found that 76% of participants overcame their condition through the treatment, compared to the current success rate of around 40% for traditional treatments (Ot’alora et al, 2018).

What’s better, this substance is not given as a prescription medication that relies on the habitual consumptions; rather, lasting improvement is seen from taking it only a few times. This treatment is based in traditional psychotherapy, accompanied by several MDMA sessions with the therapist. This allows people to first build trust in their therapist, and then, when taking MDMA, be guided and helped through the experience with the company of their therapist. During these times therapists will typically dig into the roots of the trauma. While under the influence of MDMA many find it much more reasonable to interact with these salient memories. This creates lasting change without the need to continually take medication after the treatment is over. Fortunately for the rest of us MDMA doesn’t seem to discriminate based on the origins of our traumas, and it’s likely that future research will evaluate its effectiveness for individuals who face life stressors and challenges coping with them, but do not experience traumatic stress. 

Of great importance to this technique is positioning MDMA within a therapeutic setting. These results are not seen when people take the medicine in any situation. It is the combination of MDMA with proper psychotherapy that creates these results. One of the crucial steps in this process comes after the experience with the entheogen,which is referred to as integration. It’s this integration process, which consists of understanding the experience and incorporating anything learned into one’s life after the fact, that can lead to real progress.

For these reasons, breakthrough therapy is increasingly showing its merit in the treatment of trauma, and as the research continues to roll in we can expect it to be studied for populations who do not have clinical diagnoses. Through the thoughtful combination of therapy as well as a few MDMA experiences, people are overcoming their past trauma. 

Disclaimer: The following material is provided for informational purposes only and is not designed to prescribe, diagnose, or treat any physical or mental illness. None of the information presented here should be treated as medical or professional advice. Mindleap does not condone the acquisition nor consumption of illicit psychotropic compounds.


Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (n.d.). Trauma. Retrieved 18 Feb. 2021, from https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/trauma

Feduccia, A. A., & Mithoefer, M. C. (2018). MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD: Are memory reconsolidation and fear extinction underlying mechanisms? Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 84(Pt A), 221-228. Retrieved 29 Jan. 2021, from doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2018.03.003

Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. (2020). A Multi-Site Phase 3 Study of MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD. Retrieved 29 Jan. 2021, from https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03537014

Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. (n.d.). A Phase 3 Program of MDMA-Assisted Therapy for the Treatment of Severe Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Retrieved 18 Feb. 2021, from https://maps.org/research/mdma/ptsd/phase3

Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. (n.d.) MAPS. Retrieved 18 Feb. 2021, from https://maps.org

Ot’alora, M. G., Grigsby, J., Poulter, B., Van Derveer, J. W., Giron, S. G., Jerome, L., Feduccia, A. A., Hamilton, S., Yazar-Klosinski, B., Emerson, A., Mithoefer, M., Doblin, R. (2018). 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of chronic posttraumatic stress DISORDER: A randomized phase 2 controlled trial. Retrieved February 18, 2021, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0269881118806297

Oxford Reference. (n.d.). entactogen. Retrieved 29 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095752935

Slomski A. (2018). MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD. JAMA. 319(24):2470. Retrieved 29 Jan. 2021, from doi:10.1001/jama.2018.8168

WebMD. 6 common treatments for PTSD (post-traumatic STRESS DISORDER). (2020). Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-are-treatments-for-posttraumatic-stress-disorder#1

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