[ Therapeutic psychedelics – set, setting and integration || Therapeutic psychedelics – emotions & facing fear without fear || Therapeutic psychedelics – connections and mystical experiences || Psychedelic neurochemistry and hierarchies of perception || Therapeutic psychedelics work, so why doesn’t everyone do it || The psychedelic light experience ]
None of the following is an invitation or endorsement for psychedelic drug use.
If your view on psychedelic drug use is limited to parties and ‘trips’ out of reality.., then your view is outdated. Therapeutic psychedelics are changing the world of therapy faster than you could imagine. It may be a cliché, but the only constant in life is change! What happens though, when the change you desperately want, eludes you.
Studies show that people can get lasting relief from serious mental challenges in as little as one supervised psychedelic session.
That’s right, not years of therapy.., but weeks or even days. It really is a trip to personal change.
But how and why do psychedelics help people?
And how can you use these discoveries and experiences to your benefit?
The thinking and laws put in place to make these substances illegal is outdated. And in fact the fear and secrecy surrounding them is part of the problem itself. With education and responsibility the benefits of drugs like LSD, DMT, Psilocybin, Ketamine and MDMA are now being tapped into.
ANY drug, pharmacological or psychedelic, that can quickly relieve suffering without addiction or unwanted side effects is worth exploring thoroughly. There is more than one answer as to why people get benefit from the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Done right the results can be amazing. Done without appreciation for the power to change neurology, the results can be less than useful or dangerous.
Lets explore the how and why of psychedelic hallucinations and using psychedelics therapeutically. First though, a word on correct use even if done recreationally.
Therapeutic psychedelics – set, setting and integration
In the world of psychedelics the terms ‘Set and setting’ are well known. Psychedelic setting is self explanatory.., this is the environment you are in when you take the drug. Some environments are more conducive to a pleasant relaxing experience than others. Ingesting an unknown strength and amount of a psychoactive substance in an unknown environment with unknown people.., is irresponsible. It is common even in recreational use of psychedelics for new users to have a ‘sitter’. This is someone who remains ‘sober’ and guides and supervises the session. The sitter is experienced in helping others throughout the time the person being supervised is under the influence of the drug. And they should also be experienced in the effects of the drug itself having used it themselves.
Psychedelic set, refers to the pre-frame of the session. How is it set up and what is the intention.
Again, if the goal is clear and the supervisor of the session experienced.., the result is far more likely to be beneficial.
Closely linked to set and setting, is integration. Perhaps the most important aspect of any transformational journey. And that statement encompasses more than just psychedelic integration. Any time you go through a significant emotional experience, you are potentially left in a place of raw vulnerability. A chance to re-assess your life and choices. New experiences and perspectives give you the opportunity to make new decisions. And this leads to potential life changes. For many people this is a valuable and underused part of a psychedelic experience. And because of this, many people will miss this opportunity and make the same choices as before. No wonder then, that some people jump from experience to experience looking for the drug to ‘do it for them’. So this is again partly about the psychedelic set and setting. Integration of a psychedelic trip involves making sense of your experience in a way that consolidates and encourages new choices in thought and behaviour.
Therapeutic psychedelics – emotions & facing fear without fear
This is one of the reasons that scientists and psychologists have a certain amount of agreement on. And this depends on the drug used. Psychedelic emotions can be intense and life changing.
For example, in the case of MDMA.., the drug itself creates a euphoria of positive emotion. In this euphoric state, clients are led to re-assess a past traumatic experience. By doing this the experience is re-coded from a place of empathy, and warm feelings. And the event/s can be understood from a new perspective. MDMA also seems to have close ties with Oxytocin, the hormone associated with love and empathy. In fact recent discoveries show that Oxytocin also has the ability to make the brain more ‘plastic’ or malleable. IE: Oxytocin has the ability to help our brain rewire itself via a process called neuroplasticity. Psychedelic emotions therefore bring with them an opportunity for rewiring the brain.
You don’t need a drug to boost oxytocin though. Yoga, music and meditation are just a few of the other ways to naturally boosts this hormone as well.
Feeling in control of something out of control
Other psychoactive drugs can be useful for facing fear without fear too. A calm life is not the absence of stress or fearful situations. Rather, it is a habit of feeling in control of something out of control. It is realising and feeling safe despite an uncomfortable or unknown situation. This is another way that therapeutic psychedelics can assist people to change their mindset. By relaxing into what is often an intense experience.., a new sense of control can be established. The experience may be out of your direct control, but your response to it is your choice. This is where the psychedelic set, setting and integration are important. With guidance and intention, the results of an intense psychedelic trip can be life changing.
The irony, is that by knowing that you are in control of one part of the experience.., you gain control of all of it. You can’t stop the river.., but you can direct it’s flow!
Therapeutic psychedelics – connections and mystical experiences
One of the more popular area’s of focus around therapeutic psychedelics is the value of mystical experiences. Once considered too woo woo 🙂 , there is now evidence of lasting neurological changes from religious and spiritual experiences. Short term.., there is the release of feel good chemicals and brain circuits related to reward, judgement and decision making. Long term, these and other factors alter perception and life direction. Psychedelic connections are unique to each person. And expanding your awareness often leads to new perspectives and emotional changes.
And these are just one form of altered states of consciousness. Combined with the right set and setting, this can lead to profound changes in perception and attitude.
In fact altered states of consciousness are one way to tie together all the theories around therapeutic psychedelics.
Psychedelic awareness of all that is
The other common psychedelic experience is one of being connected to all that is. Parts of the brain including the default mode network (DMN) change or switch off leading to expanded awareness of self and others. The DMN is an important part of how we relate to the outside world and the people in it. Without it people struggle to relate at all. Without the ability to switch it off, people form unchanging views which are sometimes unhealthy.
The awareness created by psychedelics allow the processes that separate you from the outside world, to be temporarily switched off. The result is an opportunity to reset your awareness of nature, people and situations and gain a new perspective. In essence you are presented with a alternative way to ‘fit’ into the world. Again this is where set and setting become important. Because the danger is, that each new psychedelic trip becomes another escape from the real psychological work.
And in some cases, psychedelic experiences become as accessible and unhealthy as a trip to your nearest fast food chain.
Psychedelic neurochemistry and hierarchies of perception
The next part of the therapeutic benefit of psychedelic experience is what happens chemically and electrically in the brain. Psychedelic neurochemistry has some commonalities and some differences.
Until recently psychedelics were classified only as substances that interact with serotonin receptors in the brain. Recent studies however show that Salvia Divinorum (or diviners sage) has a similar dissociative hallucinogenic effect. And it does so without interaction with serotonin receptors. By contrast, Salvia interacts with opioid receptors. The neurochemistry of Salvia’s psychedelic effects is different, but the result is the same.
Typically when measured with EEG the result of psychedelics is an explosion of activity throughout the brain. Area’s of the brain that usually don’t communicate with each other start doing so. And some area’s of the brain that do usually communicate with each other, stop doing so. The result is a type of neuroplastic effect where wiring and unwiring occurs. Correction.., CAN occur. Remember: Set, setting and integration!!!
Serotonin interaction can’t be given full credit for the neurochemistry of the psychedelic experience. So then what else is going on?
Psychedelics help change beliefs
Depending on the psychoactive substance, a mix of pleasure and mind altering chemicals are released into the brain. Serotonin, Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Oxytocin are a few examples. These brain hormones are directly or indirectly responsible for our emotional and sensory based perception of reality. The result of which is cognitive flexibility and a relaxing of beliefs. Under the influence of these neurochemicals, we see ourselves and the world from a high-er perspective.
This result of changing beliefs and therefore behaviour is most noticeable in a different type of therapeutic psychedelic use. Sometime called Psycholytic therapy.., this involves lower doses of the psychedelic drug. At lower doses the participant is more able to be coached and guided in a more frequent but less intense journey. So where psychedelic therapy relies more on the drug.., psycholytic therapy relies more on the therapist or guide.
Change requires a level of disorder in the person doing the changing. For some people, psycholytic therapy is the perfect balance between order & control, and disorder & change.
Our brains are prediction machines. That is, they make sense of the world by guessing what something means or what will happen next.
I wrote about this phenomenon here:
Neuroscientists speak of the brain as being organized into levels of hierarchy. Predictive processing assumes that each level of hierarchy makes predictions about the level below. These predictions flow down the hierarchy. And at lower levels they generate a feedback or error signal. This error signal highlights the difference between the prediction and actual sensory input. And then these error signals flow upward to the higher levels to refine their predictions.
Predictions at high levels of hierarchy create perceptions. And this is where it gets interesting.
Psychedelic predictive processing
Psychedelic experiences interrupt this hierarchical predictive process in a unique way. As the brains neurochemistry changes, more attention is given to actual sensory information. Instead of predictions about the present being based on the past, all the input from your senses become hyper detailed. Colours become super bright and detailed as do sounds and feelings. That flower looks like it has never looked before. But it goes further than that.
Because as the psychedelic experience progresses, predictive processing occurs at a high-er level also. The lower levels of hierarchy begin to influence the higher levels more strongly. And the error signals become less predictive themselves. The brain begins to make more uncertain and abstract predictions about the world. And these predictions then become perceptions of reality and we start hallucinating.
In effect the flow of information is reversed from a top down model to a bottom up model. Psychedelic predictive processing changes the rules as to how the brain makes sense of reality.
Scans show that the brain on psychedelics pays more attention to sensory input and less to interpreting that input. Brain activity becomes more disordered and existing neural connections are weakened as new connections become stronger.
And interestingly, the flow of brain waves support the idea that information flow is switched during a psychedelic experience.
Normally the flow of this type of brain activity is downwards, from top to bottom.
After ingesting a psychoactive substance, this switches to upwards, bottom to top flow. Part of the value of psychedelic therapy then, is learning to listen more to the body.
Therapeutic psychedelics work, so why doesn’t everyone do it
So what stops people from pursuing the benefits of psychedelic therapy?
Well lets be clear. Not everyone needs therapy or wants it. And there are many effective ways to get positive lasting therapeutic results without the use of psychedelics.
What about those who could definitely benefit though, that have tried everything else? For most people it is the fear of the unknown and fear of being out of control. And this is not helped by media fed stories of ‘bad trips’ and the illegal nature of obtaining and using them. So as a consequence, the set and setting get off to a bad start. Even as people approach the subject they are surrounded by suspicion and doubt. Not a useful frame to begin your therapeutic journey on.
Slowly, as psychedelic safety becomes more widespread.., the attitude is changing. As these substances are approved to be used in medical trials, the results speak for themselves. Still however, the fear of a lack of control keeps people who need help away from potential solutions. And there, is the irony. Fear of fear, is what keeps the fear present. Moving past fear in a controlled environment aided by psychoactive therapy, is one of the goals. So one of the aims of therapists, is education around the safety of psychedelics.
There will always be those who misuse psychedelics and ignore safety. But then there are people who ignore safety in all area’s of life.
The psychedelic light experience
The subject of safety and fear of a lack of control brings us to one final point. Do you have to ingest a psychoactive substance in order to have a psychedelic experience?
No.., you don’t.
There are other ways to get a taste of psychedelic hallucinations and sensations. Certain types of breathwork may get you there if done correctly and for long enough. And then there is the psychedelic light experience provided by photic entrainment or stimulation. And the product shown on this website is an advanced user friendly version of that. Using stroboscopic light synchronised to music, the RoXiva RX1 creates a drug free psychedelic ‘trip’. Users are immersed in a world of colour and patterns almost identical to an Ayahuasca or DMT experience.
The real beauty of that, is that the experience is totally under the users control. And this is not something that can be said about ingesting a drug.
Psychedelic light feedback
The results of this type of psychedelic light experience can sometimes be dramatic. I’ve seen first hand people get significant physical and emotional benefit from a light and sound journey. And I’ve also seen people move past fear into joy using this technology. Purpose made sessions guide people into beneficial brain states and give an opportunity to let go of stress and anxiety. Light.., used purposely, has great potential. And it really is something you need to experience to understand.
Here’s just one of many short video testimonials of recent experiences with light and sound from roXiva. They were de-light-ed by the experience.
A final word
Do you even need a psychedelic experience to learn from and use the lessons from psychedelic therapy? No you don’t. You can use the lessons about set (intention), setting (routine and location), integration (support and accountability) without that. You can also use practices like mindfulness and music to your advantage and move past fear and anxiety. And remember what I said about the role of oxytocin.
See ‘Music as a cure for cognitive dissonance’ to learn about music as a way to change.
The overall lesson from psychedelic therapy is one of using altered states of consciousness purposely and with intention. And what is an altered state of consciousness? A state different to your default state. And that opens up a world of possibilities for change and transformation.
And if you get a chance to try the RX1 from roXiva.., you may just come back seeing things differently too.