How Psychotherapy and Psychedelics Can Work Together
There is increasing evidence to suggest there is potential for psychedelics to help with a range of mental health problems
Psychotherapist Jo Nicholl explores why this is and how psychotherapy and psychedelics can work together
You may have read about the incredible breakthroughs in medical research using psychedelics for a variety of mental health issues, including depression, PTSD and addiction. Maybe you are interested in exploring psychedelics and plant medicine for your own mental health or spiritual growth, or you are just curious. Whatever you are wanting from psychedelics and plant medicine, it is so important to understand how to have the best possible outcome and how to avoid a negative experience.
As a practising psychotherapist of over 30 years, and with experience of working with psychedelics and plant medicine, I know that psychotherapy is an important part of supporting a transformational psychedelic experience. “The golden road to the unconscious” are words used to describe psychedelics and why they are gaining so much traction in the world of mental and spiritual health.
Psychedelics dissolve, for a short period of time, a part of our brain that is activated when we focus on internal mental states like rumination and imagining the future, giving us the chance to see parts of ourselves from a different perspective. This can be extraordinarily transformative.
Psychotherapy has always been used as a way to help us uncover parts of ourselves that may have been repressed, and therefore the psychotherapeutic community is mindful of how important working with psychedelics is to psychological wellbeing and the therapeutic process.
Psychedelics are illegal in the UK outside of medicalised settings, therefore many people are searching for other places to have a plant medicine/psychedelic experience. Research has shown that how and where (SET and SETTING, explored below) you have your psychedelic experience is pivotal to a transformational outcome.
A therapist who has experience with psychedelics and/or training in psychedelic integration will be able to support you on your journey in a non-judgemental, non-directive way; they are not there to advocate or invite you to work with psychedelics. The therapist is there, beforehand, to be alongside you as you make sense of what it is you are hoping for (see SET below); then afterwards, as part of the integration, to help you reflect on the psychedelic experience.
The purpose of integration and working with a therapist is to maintain the positive effects and insights as you merge the psychedelic experience with everyday life, and should they arise, to assist with challenging and intrusive thoughts. A therapist will also be able to support you as you navigate relationships and speak to friends and family about your experience.
Psychedelic Integration Therapy is different from psychotherapy in so far as its lens is on preparation and integration, rather than specific treatment modality; it is without interpretation and giving meaning. The Integration Therapist is there to support you in working with your own inner healer as you process your psychedelic journey.
You may already be working with a therapist and wondering how that works if you want to explore psychedelics, or how psychedelics can support your ongoing therapy; it is so important to explore this question with a Psychedelic Integration Therapist in the process of preparation (SET), where you will better understand what it is you are expecting and hoping for through your psychedelic/plant medicine experience, or even whether this is the journey you are drawn to at all. You can work with a Psychedelic Integration Therapist for a short preparation and integration and then continue the healing work with your regular therapist.
SET: How you prepare for a psychedelic experience
How you prepare for a psychedelic experience can positively affect the outcome. Working with a therapist who has experience of psychedelics can help you look at your motivations, fears, dreams and expectations prior to the psychedelic journey.
This preparation ensures you are emotionally and psychologically prepared for your psychedelic/plant medicine experience. The preparation stage may need only a few sessions with a therapist or longer, it is particular to the individual.
The therapist is there in a non-judgemental and non-directive capacity.
SETTING: The actual psychedelic experience
Often facilitated by a psychedelic substance, such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms), LSD, ayahuasca/DMT, a psychedelic experience can lead to profound insights, emotional breakthroughs, and altered states of consciousness.
These experiences, while potentially transformative, can also be challenging and may require support and guidance from a trained professional/Shaman. Understanding the different settings for working with psychedelics is important in order to gain the rewards of a psychedelic experience and to minimise any harm.
Psychotherapy and psychedelics, together, can be a powerful way to heal.
Psychedelic Integration Therapists do not provide psychoactive or illicit substances; nor do they provide referrals to illegal psychedelic services.
The following documentaries provide insight into recent studies into psychedelics:
BBC: 'Psychedelics’ (2022); Netflix: 'How to Change your Mind’ (2022) by Michael Pollan, also the book by the same author; Fantastic Fungi by Schwarzberg and Bone; Amazon Prime: ‘Neurons to Nirvana’ (2013).