Profound Experiences Making Profound Changes - The Evolution of Psychedelic Therapy
by Ryan Hook | July 10, 2020
Experiencing the fragility of life can show you how to live—that’s why humans are so attracted to the idea of safe... er near-death experiences, like skydiving and bungee jumping. We experience a rush of adrenaline in the face of near-death, and in that moment grapple with what it means to really live. This sensation, this rush, is frequently used as a metaphor for the experience of using psychedelics.
The social acceptability of psychedelics has waxed and waned over time. They have been used in ancient cultures as medicine, they’ve had studies done on them at Harvard, and they’ve been legal and illegal—at this time they are considered a schedule 1 drug in Canada and the United States. It feels like their beauty is in the eye of whoever deems them legal.
The social climate around psychoactive substances is shifting again. With the recent legalization of marijuana in Canada, Portugal’s newer “radical” drug policy, and Colorado’s decriminalization of mushrooms, the idea that psychedelics could start becoming more integrated into modern medicine is not farfetched. The health benefits of psychoactive plant medicine/entheogens/psychedelic drugs have long been a topic of debate. Some folk say psychedelics are harmful drugs, and others claim that psychedelic experiences are a “rebirth” and can be used medicinally.
Neither position is ‘wrong’.
It’s important to understand psychedelics from a neuropharmacological perspective. I spoke with a psychedelic integration specialist to understand how Canadians can integrate psychedelics in their health journeys in a safe and healthy manner.
Before we get into that though, it’s important to know what a psychedelic plant medicine is, what the psychedelic experience is like, and how psychedelics have developed within our culture.
History of Psychedelic Therapy
The word “psychedelic” comes from the Greek word meaning “mind-manifesting.” In Sanskrit, mind manifesting compounds were referred to as “Soma,”. Ancient Greeks would make and imbibe a fungal tea with connections to psychedelics during the Festival of Dionysus.
Historically the use of psychedelics was guided by knowledgeable shamans, plant healers (i.e. doctors) and agriculturalists. Shamanism is an ancient practice where the Shaman assists their communities by connecting them to higher planes of existence, or into ecstatic states. They’d build connections using fasting, isolation, or substances. Shamanism originated in Siberia, but is cited as existing in North and South America, India, and Africa, and various other places in Europe and Asia. Shamans knew the difference between psychedelic mushrooms, poisonous mushrooms, and edible mushrooms—you probably wouldn’t want to mix any of those up. While shiitake mushrooms are delicious, they’re not mind altering. Shamans used psychedelics as a means to heal others. Shamanistic practices laid the groundwork for many of the rituals used in modern religions.
In 1943, after years of researching and finally isolating the compounds found in ergot (a fungus), Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman absorbed a large quantity of what we now call LSD. That same day, he took a bicycle ride that psychonauts would later commemorate, and refer to as “bicycle day.” To say it was an unusual bike ride is an understatement. Bicycle Day would be the beginning of the LSD’s heyday in modern culture.
Fast forward almost 20 years. Timothy Leary and Richard Halpert were psychologists working out of Harvard in the 1960s. They introduced psychedelics to the public, opening their use up for public discourse. Timothy Leary in particular, is cited and condemned for his involvement in bringing psychedelics to the public, and condoning their rampant recreational use.
Leary incited what felt like the beginning of the end for free psychedelic use when The War on Drugs in the 1970s squashed most, if not all, research into psychedelics. Richard Nixon made psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, and LSD illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. Since then, psychedelics have been a Schedule 1 drug in the United States, and therefore are considered to have no medical value, and high potential for abuse. This assignment created a long battle for those seeking to take advantage of the medicinal value of these plant medicines.
Modern research is turning the tide on the public’s opinion of these plants, and is starting to prove to lawmakers that perhaps there is “medical value” to be found in psychoactive plant medicines.
In Canada it is stated under Section 56 (1) that the Health Minister can exempt substances from scheduling if necessary for research or medical purpose—a big step for psychedelic research. Recently, clinical trials were set to begin testing psychoactive substance, MDMA (Methylenedioxymethamphetamine), commonly known as Ecstacy, for patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Some of the contemporary chemical compounds that can be found under the psychedelic umbrella are lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin (found in mushrooms), and mescaline (found in peyote).
There are many others, many of which are found outside of human labs in nature. Psychedelics are making a controlled and healthy return to the medical sphere, and the public. From subculture to mainstream, psychedelics are on a journey.
What Happens to the Brain on Psychedelics?
In a 2017 BBC article about “magic” mushrooms and psilocybin's effect on the brain, BBC quoted a study published in the journal of Scientific Reports—
“The amygdala – which is heavily involved in how we process emotions such as fear and anxiety – became less active. The greater the reduction, the greater the improvement in reported symptoms. The default-mode network – a collaboration of different brain regions – became more stable after taking psilocybin.”
This means that psychedelic plant medicines can have a significantly positive effect on our psyche. Psychedelics help people with terminal illnesses, people with death anxiety, and have been proven to help curb addiction to tobacco and heroin. Some prescribed medications can encourage addiction or chemical dependency—psychedelics do not have the same effect. Psychedelic plant medicine is a promising aid in facilitating better emotional health.
The Common Psychedelic Experience
In the 60’s, psychedelics became an integral part of the hippie movement. Since then, other subcultures have embraced psychedelics, and they’re commonly used during music events. The ways in which psychedelics are integrated into the subcultures who use them recreationally, is much different from how medical professionals would like to integrate them.
The psychedelic experience has been portrayed cartoonishly, and therefore inaccurately, in contemporary media. While some individuals do get ‘visuals,’ those visuals frequently don’t generally look like magic eye paintings. Psychedelics often produce a figurative “opening of the doors of perception”, or an “ego death.”
Carl Jung called it a “psychic death.” Psychedelic therapy, like a lot of therapy, is a place of transition, vulnerability, and self surrender. While those experiences can be had when doing these drugs recreationally, real danger and accidental misuse is more likely. While ego death and awakenings create real changes, these changes and experiences can become too much to handle when the user is not shepherded by a caring, experienced professional.
I asked my Facebook friends to share their recreational experiences with psychedelics. The responses I received made it evident that people who take psychedelics are frequently self-medicating. Of course, this is an extremely informal and biased poll, but it feels insightful all the same.
One commenter said, “I have microdosed [psychedelics] on numerous occasions for anxiety, and all sorts of things [...] it does help considerably and I know folks who have had extreme depression and gotten to the point of feeling ‘fully recovered’ so to speak.” Another said she used psychedelics to curb her suicidal ideation.
A large portion of self-medicating psychedelic users who commented on my informal poll experienced the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics—but self-medicating doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. One commenter, K.K. (we’ll use these letters to retain the poster’s anonymity) said, “I'm currently treating some heavy PTSD. I have counseling every two weeks, and am taking antidepressants. [...] I tried to microdose [psychedelics] every other day on 0.1g of mushrooms. It felt nice, but I needed to match it with professional help. Once I started counseling I felt like I just needed to opt out of any and all drugs, including alcohol, while I settled into my new normal.”
Reading these comments made me wonder—would it reduce harm, and improve therapeutic results if these people could have been guided by a therapist, or other professional?
Psychedelics are often introduced to people through friends, and at music festivals or similar events. Psychedelics can be abused, and frequently are in these environments. They’re no joke. The psychedelic experience is potent, and it’s easy to over-romanticize. While the upsides of use include supporting people with PTSD, depression, and anxiety, the downsides to doing them include psychedelic-induced psychosis.
Music festivals frequently have harm reduction trained professionals present to deal with unforeseen circumstances. These people can curb the unfortunate responses to poor use of these substances.
No one who commented on my Facebook post described their use of psychedelics in a way that would resemble use in a modern therapeutic setting. A great number of people have experienced psychedelics, but very few have experienced them in conjunction with therapy.
As psychedelics become a prescribable medicine, things are changing.
Modern Psychedelic Integration
Therapy changes the way we see ourselves and the way we see the world. The same goes for psychedelic integration therapy. I spoke to Jim Kragtwyk, a psychedelic integration specialist based out of Victoria, British Columbia. Psychedelic Integration Specialists are therapists trained in plant medicine, who advise clients on the appropriate treatments for their conditions. Psychedelic Integration Specialists do not sell or condone the use of illegal psychedelics, rather they share their expertise on the matter. With clinical trials underway in Canada, psychedelic integration therapy may become an important tool in the psychological healing toolbox.
Kragtwyk says Psychedelic Integration is about, “Supporting people who have gone through individual treatments or plant medicine circles that need more help integrating the teachings into their lives.” This includes people who have taken psychedelics recreationally or have participated in shamanic ceremonies overseas. Integration therapy is about taking the experiences that occurred during the psychedelic trip, and turning them into real-life changes. Kragtwyk describes psychedelic use as a “tsunami of experience” full of “insight and awakening.” The psychedelic experience can be life changing. Your consciousness shifts, your ideas about the self and the world change, and you are freed to let go of old patterns of behaviour. After such an awakening, going back to your 9-5 job feel be daunting. Integration therapy can help you to take those “higher level messages into [your] day-to-day” Kragtwyk says. It’s about observing the ways in which you’ve changed and seeing how to implement that in a positive way.
I asked Kragtwyk who it is that is allowed, and encouraged to participate in clinical trials of psychedelics, “Anyone who undergoes an amount of anxiety, depression, or post traumatic stress.”
For psychonauts and psychedelic health practitioners, there’s a hope that the results of these clinical trials will assist in psychedelic substances becoming decriminalized. As Kragtwyk suggests, “[...] They can be used in many modalities—psychology, therapy, or even massage therapy.”
Kragtwyk’s work extends to patients who have gone through traumatic psychedelic experiences. He says, “Some people come in to see me to be put back together, so to speak.” Some people develop messiah complexes, or feel like they need to ditch their “inauthentic lives” and “leave their wife and kids” after intense experiences with psychedelic substances. This is when they should see a psychedelic integration specialist, because as Kragtwyk says, they probably just, “need an art class.”
Plant medicine comes with many positives, but its role in the dominant North American culture over the last several decades has been recreational, and often negative. Psychedelics are commonly misused, and for that reason, their integration into modern medical practice has been sluggish. Psychedelic integration therapists are trying to contextualize the psychedelic experiences that people have had, and are pushing for the ability to administer plant medicine in a controlled environment.
Like prescription drugs, psychedelics require specific doses for individuals based on age, weight, and other factors. For those who self-medicate, or use recreationally, online dosage calculators encourage harm reduction. Facebook user, N.B., said “I’ve been microdosing 0.17 of mushrooms every third day for about 3 months to help manage my anxiety. I’ve been using a dose calculator online that helps determine my dose based on my weight.”
To further prevent harm, people who are going to use psychedelics recreationally need to take into consideration whether they have any mental health disorders, or heart conditions. Psychedelics should be dosed correctly and safely, and the person using them should be in a safe environment. Kragtwyk explained, “You need the set and setting as well as the appropriate medicine for the issue. For people [who have] a propensity for psychotic breaks, I wouldn't suggest psychedelics.”
Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, describes the two functional ways in which one can approach a psychedelic ‘trip’. Set is one’s internal state. Kragtwyk says it’s important to “prepare them [the client] internally so they can benefit externally.” Setting is the environment in the immediate surroundings. “If you’re not in the right setting, say a busy street corner, you may not have a transcendental or spiritual experience, you’re likely to get triggered into paranoia and anxiety,” states Kragtwyk, who suggests a controlled and peaceful environment for any psychedelic use.
Other forms of psychedelic integration include harm reduction sites, which are most often found at music festivals. They “aim to reduce risks and harm associated with the use of psychoactive substances,” says Alberta Health Services. The goal of harm reduction sites is to acknowledge that not everyone is abstinent from psychoactives, or other substances, and to provide a service where trained professionals are present to recognize and react if someone has either abused or overdone their use. With the additional tools of drug testing facilities and safe injection sites, harm reduction recognizes, rather than ignores, the public use of recreational drugs.
Larger scale studies need to be done before treatments with psychedelics are legalized. Decriminalization is the goal, Kragtwyk says, “Ideally, decriminalization would at least change the general consensus [on psychedelics].”
The Future of Psychedelics
The BBC reported that “the networks we know are involved in depression are treated after just a single dose of psilocybin.” Not only that, but in Canada terminally ill patients have asked health minister’s to allow the use of psychedelics, like psilocybin, to ease their end of life distress.
Psychedelic therapy may not be for everyone, and it’s best not to push the subject with people who are uncomfortable with it, but they can help, and there is proof to back that claim up. Kragtwyk says, “A profound experience is the basis for a profound change. The question then becomes, how do we take this profound experience and integrate it?”
The toughest part of any therapy is always making changes, but Kragtwyk says that’s his top job, “My job as a specialist,” he says, “[...] is to bring you down from the mystical, profound, and transcendental experience to the present and now.” Plant medicines need to be respected as powerful medicine with plenty of benefits, that are mentally and physically dangerous if not used with caution.
Harm reduction teams and psychedelic integration therapies are the start of ushering psychedelics into modern medicine safely and therapeutically. There are places in the world outside of North America that offer psychedelic experiences and therapy. Perhaps integration specialists like Kragtwyk will become the shamans of modern Western medicine.
Psychedelics addictive: https://psychedelics.com/psychedelic-drug-addiction/
Ayahuasca’s long term effects: https://reset.me/study/study-ayahuasca-has-no-long-term-negative-effects/
Ryan Hook is a writer, photographer, musician, and spoken word poet. Born in St.Albert and living in Edmonton, Alberta, his mission is to bring Sound and Story. He has worked as a music journalist for Vue Weekly, BeatRoute, and Exclaim! as well as been a published short story writer. When he's not writing he is an accomplished songwriter and recording artist for his band, Baby Boy and the Earthly Delights. Whether it's writing, music, or travelling, he bides by the philosophy that life is a playground and nothing is off limits.