Unlocking Compassion: MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy

Exploring MDMA's remarkable potential for personal transformation.
Clinicians suggest patients have therapy sessions leading up to the administration of MDMA, and continue therapy in the weeks following to maximize its benefits. Photo: Pawel Czerwinski

By Annelise Peterson

For the past 30 years, MDMA, popularly known on the street as ecstasy or molly, has forged a reputation tightly intertwined with pulsating raves and uninhibited sexuality. The mere mention of the four-letter acronym conjures images of euphoric, uninhibited partygoers dancing amid strobe lights well into dawn. But could MDMA’s enduring association as a recreational substance be overshadowing its remarkable potential for personal transformation and breakthroughs in the field of psychology? Beyond the party-drug stigma lies a substance with the potential to unlock profound healing, self-discovery and human connection.

Chemically known as 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, MDMA was first synthesized in the early 20th century as a potential pharmaceutical compound. However, its psychoactive properties weren’t fully realized until 1976, when chemist Alexander Shulgin began exploring its effects. According to Andrew Huberman, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor of neurobiology and opthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine known for his research on brain function and visual perception, MDMA, like other amphetamines, causes a significant increase in dopamine. What makes it unique is its simultaneous production of even larger increases in serotonin in the brain, resulting in a prosocial effect. The key point is that the increase in serotonin is three to nine times larger than the increase in dopamine, leading to a motivated, highly unusual and clinically beneficial state of empathy, not only for others but also for the self.

Contrary to popular belief, MDMA is not a hallucinogen. Hallucinogens, such as LSD, psilocybin and mescaline, primarily induce altered states of consciousness, including visual and auditory hallucinations and sensory experiences. These hallucinogenic effects can lead to profound shifts in perception, cognition and consciousness.

While both hallucinogens and empathogens have been studied for their potential therapeutic applications, empathogens, such as MDMA, have a different mechanism of action and produce distinct effects compared to hallucinogens. They primarily enhance empathy, emotional openness and the sense of connection with others. This nourishes a sense of love, trust and compassion, and facilitates deep emotional experiences and introspection. Research has shown MDMA—in connection with talk therapy— to be highly effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, as it supports individuals in addressing traumatic experiences.

Dr. Gabor Maté, a renowned author, and trauma and addiction expert, emphasizes that the word trauma comes from the Greek word for wound. Therefore, trauma is not what happens to you; trauma is the invisible wound sustained as a result of an experience. Maté argues that time alone cannot heal all wounds. Unaddressed wounds scar, and the scar tissue that emerges is rigid. This scar can cause a traumatized person to be less flexible, and their emotional growth and development will suffer as a result. It takes tremendous willpower and dedication to heal from a traumatic experience. The flood of dopamine from an empathogen creates the courage and motivation, while the even larger increase in serotonin fosters deep connectivity and compassion for oneself and others. This creates an ideal environment for healing psychic injuries rather than merely cauterizing them. In various languages, including Maté’s native Hungarian, the word health stems from the word “whole.” Trauma splits a person from their true self and disconnects them from their emotions. As Maté shared in an interview with Jay Shetty, “Healing is not the absence of physical illness, but it’s the integrity of a person who is no longer split off on themselves.”

“For most people suffering from PTSD, the trauma is locked inside,” reinforces Kathryn Smerling, PhD, a child development expert and acclaimed family therapist. “MDMA helps unlock the paralysis.” In fact, recent studies at Johns Hopkins University, at the forefront of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy research for PTSD, have shown that this medicine could possess the remarkable capability to eliminate PTSD symptoms.

So, what is holding this powerful potion from being used by licensed practitioners? The use of MDMA does carry potential risks. Factors such as the concurrent use of other stimulants like caffeine or alcohol, dosage and the environment in which the drug is administered should all be taken into consideration. When used in conjunction with an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) such as Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro, Zoloft or Paxil, MDMA is both ineffective and dangerous. Acquired through illicit means, MDMA carries possible serious consequences, as it is frequently laced with potentially lethal substances such as the opioid fentanyl.

Furthermore, the integration piece is critical to the outcome. Clinicians suggest patients have therapy sessions leading up to the administration of MDMA and continue therapy in the weeks following to maximize the empathogenic benefits. This approach allows for the incorporation of the MDMA experience into the broader therapeutic process, aiding in the processing and consolidation of emotions, insights and personal growth. By providing a supportive environment and guidance during the critical period immediately following MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, the neuroplasticity of the brain can be reinforced, resulting in healing and metamorphosis. “MDMA offers something revolutionary to psychotherapy by creating a unique chemical milieu of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin—an incredibly potent environment for transformation. However, rigorous research is needed to discern how to most effectively and safely use this powerful compound,” says Shauna Shapiro, PhD, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, bestselling author and expert in the field of mindfulness.

“MDMA opened my channels of compassion—for both myself as well as my transgressors. I am forever grateful to this powerful medicine and to the brave practitioners who continue to administer this drug despite its street status,” professes one participant in MDMA-psychotherapy. “Just as they saw the potential in me, they recognized the immense transformative power of this amazing molecule in reshaping our perception of the world.” Through the embrace of love and the absence of fear, MDMA allows hope to flourish, scars to heal and the human spirit to soar beyond the confinements that once held it captive.