But, what if there was a way to crush that gnawing anxiety about leaving your loved ones behind? What if you could conquer your fear of death entirely? 

According to science, there are two possible instances in which one’s anxiety and fear of dying can be reduced dramatically. (1) Near-death experiences (NDE),  wherein one gets a clear sense or awareness of being dead and entering a “tunnel of light”. (2) Tripping out on strong doses of psychedelic substances such as psilocybin, the active ingredient in shrooms and magic truffles. 

Though vastly different, the one thing NDEs and tripping out have in common is their overwhelming intensity. The strange similarity between the two has never been truly studied before — until today. 

Psychedelics Work Like Near-Death Experiences in Reducing Fear of Death

A new study from Johns Hopkins, published in the journal PLOS ONE, has compared near-death experiences and psychedelics based on their ability to reduce one’s anxiety over dying. The team surveyed 3,192 people online who have changed their beliefs about death. Whether after taking major doses of psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT (aka “psychedelic experience”), or after going through either an out-of-body or a near-death experience (aka “non-drug experiences”).

The results were astounding. The data just might be solid evidence why psychedelic-based talk therapy has worked so well in reducing end-of-life anxiety and distress. 

Dr. Roland Griffiths and his team discovered that psychedelics work like near-death experiences (NDEs) in reducing one’s fear of death. (Image from Health Policy Politics on YouTube; Creative Commons)

As the authors wrote:

“[Both] groups were remarkably similar in the reported changes in death attitudes attributed to the experience, including a reduced fear of death.”

Dr. Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, said in an interview with Vice.com:

“I was expecting [the groups] to have some overlap, but to be much more different than they ended up being in this survey.

“There was a huge overlap with respect to the phenomenology — that is, the qualities of the experience — as well as the enduring attributions made to that experience, in both the near-death or out-of-body or non-drug experiences, versus the psychedelic experiences.”

‘They No Longer Believe That Death is an Endgame’

What happens when you narrowly avoid certain death? 

For those who have lived through near-death experiences, there’s a sense of your life “flashing before your eyes in a split-second”. Such an intense event often leads to major life transformations. Take an abrupt career change, for example, from soulless cubicle jobs to exciting pursuits based on passion. A desire to come out as your most authentic self; or a newfound sense of purpose in your life. 

Terminal cancer patients who were given psilocybin after their diagnosis were able to reduce their fear and anxiety about dying. (Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash)

Griffiths, one of the world’s leading experts on psilocybin as medicine, read about the life-changing effects of near-death experiences. Soon, the neuroscientist was struck by how similarly NDEs work to a full-on dose of shrooms and magic truffles. Could this link be confirmed in the real world? He sat down to develop the comparative experiment:

“Very often people come away with a changed sense that there’s something that continues after death of the body. Griffiths told Vice.com on the fear-reducing effects of psilocybin. “People feel that there’s some benevolent quality that emerges, and that they no longer believe that death is an endgame.”

Psilocybin has been shown to be effective in cancer patients by reducing the death anxiety that often comes after such a diagnosis. Griffiths had done similar work in the past, which came in handy when comparing psychedelics to near-death experiences.

“We had done work with psilocybin in cancer patients who were depressed or anxious because of their life-threatening cancer diagnosis, and we found much the same thing. 

“People had these experiences and they had a marked decrease in depression and anxiety, but also in a fear of death.”

‘Single Most Meaningful Experience of Their Lives’

Out of the 3,192 respondents in total, 2,259 were classified as psychedelic experiences and 933 were non-drug experiences (i.e. near-death experiences and out-of-body events). In the first group, LSD was the most common drug at 40 percent (904 respondents). Followed by psilocybin mushrooms at a close 34 percent (766 respondents). Then DMT in smoke/vape form other than ayahuasca at 14 percent (307 respondents). And finally, traditional ayahuasca at 12 percent (282 respondents)

Psilocybin, the active ingredient in shrooms and magic truffles, was credited by a huge chunk of respondents as key to conquering their fear of death. (Photo via Wholecelium)

In the second group, composed of those who had non-drug experiences, around half of the respondents wrote that they have had a near-death experience. The other half reported having had an out-of-body experience. These can be just as transformative but without posing danger to their life.

Less Anxious About Death

Both the psychedelic- and non-drug experience groups felt less anxious about death after going through their respective events. There were still a few key differences, however. For example, those who had either an out-of-body or a near-death experience were more likely than those in the psychedelic group to “rate their experiences as the single most meaningful of their lives”

On the other hand, those in the psychedelic group had subtle traits. These depended on the set and setting of the drug experience. 

Griffiths explained to Vice.com about how ayahuasca trips (i.e. the brewed variety) are taken in a different context these days, compared to other popular psychedelics:

“Although we statistically control for demographic differences, ayahuasca tends to be used in ceremonies, in groups. So, there may be more of a bias toward an expectation of some kind of metaphysical insight.

“There really may be differences, but I think we’re a ways from teasing those apart.”

Psychedelics as a Way to Induce Awe

The full journal article goes on to describe just how much out-of-body and near-death experiences and psychedelic trips have in common. One subtle occurrence in both groups was encounters with otherworldly entities, such as with a being that you might describe as “God”. Another was the way in which the respondents saw life (and death) in a vastly different way for the rest of their lives. 

Taking shrooms and magic truffles can help you feel a strong sense of awe, which has been linked to reduced levels of stress and anxiety. (Photo by Jay on Unsplash)

These changes in one’s perception are linked to the feeling of awe, which can be induced in a number of ways. Taking strong doses of psychedelics, such as shrooms and magic truffles, is an easy and effective way of doing so. Ever noticed how a well-prepared trip can often quickly reduce your stress, loneliness, and depression? 

All thanks to awe! 

How Awe Can Improve Your Life

In a white paper for UC Berkeley, Dr. Summer Allen describes awe as follows:

“An experience evokes a ‘need for accommodation’ when it violates our normal understanding of the world. When a stimulus exceeds our expectations in some way, it can provoke an attempt to change the mental structures that we use to understand the world. This need for cognitive realignment is an essential part of the awe experience…

“Awe experiences are self-transcendent. They shift our attention away from themselves, make us feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves, and make us more generous toward others.”

Here are a few ways in which a sense of awe can help you feel good and relieve stress:

  • Changes the way you perceive and feel time, so mundane concerns fade
  • Makes you feel happier, genuinely positive and patient
  • Helps you become more tingly, curious, and creative
  • Makes you feel connected to humanity as a whole
  • Sparks a desire to “crawl out” of your problems to help others

Simply put, those who experience awe regularly reap the benefits in their daily lives. In a paper for the Cognition and Emotion journal, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt had this to say about awe:

“Awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.”

Psilocybin as a Rare Comfort

Finally, Griffiths shared his dreams to Vice.com:

“Therapeutically, I would hope that eventually the use of these compounds to treat end-of-life anxiety will be medically approved. That’s huge, because, of course, we’re all terminal.

“There will be many within our culture who are going to face that existential crisis and can be very distressed by it, so it’s a hugely applicable therapeutic indication.”

Don’t knock it till you try it. (Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash)

Griffiths and his team wish their findings to help in the psychedelic renaissance. How exactly, you may ask? By easing in psychedelics such as psilocybin into the general public as medicine.

Here’s how it works. As scientists race to address the mental health crisis that has affected millions, the only way to hasten the process is by convincing lawmakers that, yes, psychedelic-based therapy does work. This most recent study on the ability of psychedelics to comfort those anxious about death, is one such example. Further proof that psilocybin’s benefits are not a fluke. 

Bulls-eye, you might even say!