Introducing the "Psychedelics & Trauma" series. This series is focused on the efficacy as well as safety measures associated with the use of psychedelics for relieving trauma symptoms.
As an Integrative Trauma Healing Practitioner, plant medicines are an important part of my practice. While I, personally have benefited tremendously from plant medicines of all kinds in 13+ years of intentional and therapeutic practice, I have come to hold the belief that when it comes to individuals with a significant history of trauma and/or a PTSD diagnosis, great care and caution is warranted.
While psychedelic medicines hold great promise for the treatment of many mental health conditions, trauma is a complex and delicate category that requires long-term multi-faceted controlled studies to assess the benefits and risks as it relates to developmental trauma and shock trauma.
Trauma symptoms manifest in many forms and vary from individual to individual. Unlike depression and anxiety where the symptoms are standard across a significant majority of the diagnosed population, PTSD involves far more complex symptoms and manifestations.
Trauma at its core is a loss of safety. Any condition with the potential to perpetuates the feeling of loss of safety carries the possibility of exacerbating the symptoms. High-dose psychedelic experiences have a strong probability of inducing states of fear and anxiety, especially if administered without proper preparation and professional facilitation. In some instances, like the ayahuasca brew, states of fear and terror are often a common experience regardless of preparation and facilitation. Special care and caution are warranted especially under such circumstances. It is recommended to consult a trauma specialist before taking part in such experiences to assess risk.
Another critical point to consider is the prevalence of disassociation in many individuals diagnosed with PTSD. Disassociation is a learned survival response common in individuals with shock trauma or prolonged physical and/or sexual abuse history. Disassociated individuals have difficulty connecting with and staying in the body; this is often accompanied by substance abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm. The integrative approach in these cases is cultivating safety in the body, developing embodiment practices, and anchoring in the body as much as possible to deepen one's connection to oneself.
A lesser-known manifestation of disassociative states is found in the excessive practice of spiritual and wellness disciplines that under normal conditions can be deemed beneficial but pose a risk with disassociated populations. Excessive aerobic exercise (ex: runners' high) or meditative practices like Transcendental Meditation are especially problematic for these populations as they reinforce further dissociation.
Since large-dose psychedelic medicines often accompany experiences of transcending the body, they must be approached with great care and caution when working with individuals suspected of dissociation. The promotion and support of embodiment is the #1 goal for all associated individuals; psychedelic interventions are not an exception to this.
Does this mean that individuals with PTSD or significant trauma history can not benefit from psychedelic medicines? Of course not! While high doses of psychedelics pose a challenge to the embodiment goal, small doses seem to have the opposite effect. Small doses of psychedelic medicines are not only a safe option for most individuals with PTSD (other medical precautions considered), but they indeed offer a potentially profound opportunity for healing trauma. Stay tuned to learn about how smaller doses of psychedelics can support trauma recovery in my upcoming blog posts. Make sure to sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the publication.