Love, sex and MDMA: Could the party drug be used for couple's therapy?

'In 10 years’ time, no-one will bat an eyelid'

Kashmira Gander
Friday 07 October 2016 13:53 BST
Ecstasy is known to significantly boost empathy in users
Ecstasy is known to significantly boost empathy in users

Relationship partners who take MDMA together enter a “bubble” where they feel free to express their deepest emotions, and the illicit drug could be used for therapy within 10 years, an expert has told The Independent.

A study into the use of the illegal drug by couples has suggested it can help them discuss their issues “free of fear” – talking about everything from sexual fantasies and infidelity to difficult memories, according to Katie Anderson, a doctoral researcher in applied sciences at London Southbank University.

Within what Anderson calls the “MDMA bubble", couples reported that otherwise difficult conversations felt “organic” and “natural”, and that they understood their partner on a deeper level.

“There were some extraordinary experiences where the sense of closeness MDMA created was so profound that the most fundamental boundary of all was blurred: that between self and other,” she says.

“We were not two people, we were one person,” a couple told her. Another pair described taking MDMA in the bath and how “the dimly lit, watery surroundings seem to precipitate a fluidity of selves. It felt like we were fused together. Like one piece.”

Both male and female participants reported that men were more emotionally vulnerable and open on the drug.

The feelings of the “bubble” lingered after the drug wore off, too, explains Anderson, as they were reminded of their experiences. The drug created a “nice clean slate”, one pair said.

While some were worried that they were “developing a chemical romance”, they found that the feelings of closeness remained.

To make her findings for her initial study, Anderson asked couples aged between 24 and 60 years old who had taken MDMA together five times or more to describe how the experiences influenced their relationship. The first stage involved interviewing 10 couples, and the second stage involved diaries and individual interviews.

MDMA, which can be taken as a powder or pill, is a synthetic psychoactive drug which triggers parts of the brain linked with happiness and euphoria, and also boosts energy levels. Most significant for this study though, it also boosts empathy. As MDMA is illegal, it can be cut with harmful substances when bought on the street. It also affects the body’s temperature controls, meaning some people, although generally only those who are not properly informed as to the risks and precautions, can become dehydrated or drink dangerous amounts of water.

However, Anderson is among researchers working to understand how pure, laboratory-controlled psychoactive drugs could be used for therapy. Last year, the US Drug Enforcement Agency approved the use of MDMA by the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychadelic Studies (Maps) in a study into post-traumatic stress disorder.

“In 10 years’ time, no one will bat an eyelid if you say you are going to a MDMA-assisted psychotherapy session,” Anderson says. “The scientific evidence is building for the both the safety and efficacy of these therapies and the public will respond to that. Polls already suggest that public opinion on the regulation of other drugs such as cannabis has shifted, with 47 per cent in favour of sale from licensed premises.

But she added a stigma around such research remains, and referred to former government advisor Professor David Nutt needing to crowdfund £50,000 to complete a study into LSD brain imaging.

“I would like to see this stigma fade so that we can conduct the research needed to give us a real, evidence-based picture about the true potential value and harm of illicit drugs.”

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