Psychedelics as therapy: How people are healing their trauma using magic mushrooms and other psychedelics
The trouble with trauma
During late June, 2014, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse problems. What’s more, while roughly 11 percent of Americans regularly take antidepressants, fewer than one-third of them have seen a mental health professional in the past year. Why? On the one hand we are facing the overwhelming collective anxiety of COVID-19 causing mass-lockdowns, a mounting climate crisis on our hands, and a highly stressed economy with millions newly unemployed to top it all off. On the other hand, today, more than ever, we’re seeing the consequences of a failing mental health system — one that is reactive rather than proactive, and was designed to treat symptoms rather than the traumas and related issues that cause them (thankfully though, we are heading in the right direction in many ways as proactive mental health is becoming more normalized).
Trauma is a powerful word that can tell an endless number of stories. Each of our traumas is unique, but what unites many of them is their ability to penetrate deeply and manifest within us. Trauma can present itself in any number of ways, including making us feel depressed and hopeless, anxious and overwhelmed, or oversensitized or desensitized to our reality, and often our entire perception of reality shifts as a result of the traumas we’ve encountered.
For example, when someone has generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), it means they feel frequently or even perpetually unsafe as a result of their trauma, regardless of what is happening in their day-to-day life. Often this results in that person not being able to truly express themselves or tap into the full potential of who they would like to be. Sadly, GAD is just one of dozens of common mental health disorders that affect hundreds of millions of people around the world.
A broken, inefficient system
What’s difficult about mental health is that at both the clinical and population level, there is a general lack of information, resources, and use of best practices. Our education systems rarely touch on mental health, and traditional pharmacological treatments such as SSRIs (antidepressants) are like band-aids for scars. They cover up some of the issues and hide them partially from view, but within the layers below the band-aid, the trauma is still stored in our bodies and minds, and continues to manifest itself and bring us down. This is because SSRIs are designed to treat chemical imbalances in the brain, instead of the trauma that causes them.
“The theory fits in with psychiatry’s attempt over the past half-century to portray depression as a disease of the brain instead of an illness of the mind”
One of the most popular forms of mental healthcare today is talk therapy. Talk therapy can be helpful, and in some cases is all that you need. But for many of us, talk therapy can take months or years, as it requires intense emotional and often physical effort to talk about our trauma — even getting comfortable enough to talk about our trauma can take a long time. Plus, when we’re depressed or anxious already, talking about trauma can be well past the threshold of what we feel inspired to do in a day. Beyond this, it is often the case that talking about trauma doesn’t make it go away.
What all this means is that trauma is, at a general population level, highly misunderstood, difficult to manage, and requires a ton of effort and often money to work through. As a result, many of us never manage to overcome our trauma, and remain broken, scarred, and scared for years or lifetimes.
The promise of psychedelic therapy
Over the last 70+ years, modern science and clinicians have been slowly learning and coming to accept what ancient civilizations have known for millennia: that psychedelics can offer a window into the subconscious mind, and for many people, enable a mental reset like no other treatment before.
Since the 1960s, underground therapists have been giving patients MDMA during therapy sessions in order to put the patient into a unique, safe state of mind — one that allows them to feel comfortable thinking about, discussing, and reprocessing traumatic memories and the thoughts and feelings associated with them. The powerful safety shield that MDMA provides has been described by patients as enabling several years of therapy to take place over the course of just a few hours.
In March 1985, MAPS hosted a notable conference at Esalen called “MDMA in Psychotherapy”. One of the attendees was psychotherapist George Greer, who in a conference report noted the unique powers of the drug when used in conjunction with therapy:
“[MDMA] … reduced defensiveness and fear of emotional injury, thereby facilitating more direct expression of feelings and opinions, and enabling people to receive both praise and criticism with more acceptance than usual. . . . Many subjects experienced the classic retrieval of lost traumatic memories, followed by the relief of emotional symptoms.”
Despite MDMA itself being illegal in most countries, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is on its way to becoming a legalized treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the United States, Canada, and Israel. Given that it’s a huge improvement over existing treatments (hence why it’s been called “breakthrough” by the FDA), we can reasonably expect to see this treatment becoming a globally standard (or at least common) treatment for PTSD in the coming years.
Meanwhile, psilocybin (the primary active compound in magic mushrooms) is also gaining significant recognition from the scientific and clinical community for its ability to enable breakthroughs for people with severe forms of depression and anxiety.
“I became a different person,” said one clinical trial patient, who had tried multiple types of therapy and medication, and was at an extreme low after his mother’s death from cancer, followed by a friend’s suicide. But the psilocybin allowed him to transform: “I couldn’t wait to get dressed, get into the outside world, see people. I was supremely confident — more like I was when I was younger, before the depression started and got to its worst.”
It’s easy to understand why psilocybin-assisted therapy has been granted FDA breakthrough status for major depressive disorder and treatment-resistant depression. Soon, this will likely broaden to other mental health conditions too, as dozens of clinical trials are being launched for various combinations of disorders, treatment protocols, and psychedelic medicines.
Doing the work: psychedelic integration
While psychedelics are understandably being described as “miracle cures” in many circles, an important point to clear up is this: psychedelics don’t do the work for you. Rather, they are the enablers of change — psychedelics can help us dive into our subconscious mind and to see the world from a new perspective, but ultimately the real work still has to be done by the user.
Depending on the intensity of your psychedelic experience, you might realize everything you need to, and come out of the experience with a perfectly reframed mind. But more than likely, you’ll have come to some big realizations — why you’ve been scared of X, that Y isn’t such a big deal, or that Z is the real truth that you’ve been afraid to admit to yourself. Perhaps you also had intense visions, feelings, or thoughts that you didn’t fully process during the experience. Regardless of the actual subject matter, psychedelic experiences often leave us with work to do.
We may have a new sense of direction, but not a clear plan on what steps to take first. Our bodies may still react with fear to the things we were scared of before the psychedelic experience, despite us now knowing we can conquer them. Or, we may find that we only scratched the surface of a fully renewed understanding ourselves and our relationship to the world.
What exactly is psychedelic integration?
Integration is the process of using your psychedelic experience to enact personal change. It’s doing “the work” to turn your altered states into altered (behavioural or cognitive) traits. The ultimate goal of integration is using your psychedelic experience to create deeper self-alignment.
Integration can happen after a psychedelic experience that took place in any context, including clinical, therapeutic, spiritual, peer-led, or alone, and regardless of what happened during the experience.
Note that psychedelics are illegal in most of the world, and should always be approached with caution, preparation, and understanding. If you are not ready for a psychedelic experience, it can result in psychosis, worsening of trauma, persistent intrusive thoughts, and other bad outcomes. Before considering taking any psychedelic, understand your local laws, learn about set and setting, have a reason / intention for the experience, and spend a serious amount of time preparing for the experience so that you don’t have a bad trip.
Where to get psychedelic integration
If you are looking to access experienced psychedelic integration experts, who can help you to process your psychedelic experiences and make meaningful changes in your life you can find them on Mindleap (disclaimer: I work for Mindleap). The integration specialists on the app are all thoroughly vetted — many of them have PhDs or Masters degrees, and all of them have been through relevant training programs from notable institutions like Fluence, Psychedelic Support, and CIIS.
“After taking a very long “break” from them, psychedelics become an integral part of my personal growth and development over the past two years. At one point I felt I had arrived at a plateau of sorts, and realized that I needed to learn more about how to integrate the insights gleaned from psychedelic experience into my everyday life. [After working with an integration coach, I] gained a tremendous amount of knowledge not only about integration methods that helped me to maximize my experiences, but about myself as well. It was one of the best investment[s] of time and money I ever made.” — source
To synthesize: psychedelic healing and integration work can be a powerful recipe for overcoming trauma. This isn’t to say that it’s the only recipe; books like The Body Keeps The Score and Waking The Tiger highlight the somatic and neurobiological components of trauma, and explore other powerful ways we can let go of trauma and move forward with life. But, conscious and intentional usage of psychedelics, coupled with integration is certainly one of the most exciting and fastest-spreading methods of understanding and healing ourselves.