I’ve been working in the area of mental health treatment and neuroscience for over 35 years. But I now believe that we’re on the cusp of a therapeutic revolution in because of psychedelics. When certain psychedelics are given in combination with the correct type of psychotherapy, we may be able to help individuals with a wide range of mental health problems.
This joint approach, called psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, holds the promise of revolutionizing the treatment of mental health disorders. This is backed by great leaps in our understanding of the science which underlies what psychedelics do, and thanks to this we know a lot more about how the brain and the mind experience and react to psychedelics. But what is it like to take psychedelics?
What We Experience
People who take psychedelics often experience the effects as a “trip” lasting several hours, but this word doesn’t really sum up the strangeness of the experience, which can vary widely. Some people find that they gain tremendous understanding into things that weren’t clear before, including personal and spiritual insights. Psychedelics can also cause people to experience bizarre experiences, the peak of joy, or feel an intense connection to a greater power. Often these experiences are so far beyond normal, that they can be hard to describe in words.
One of the most bizarre types of experiences are those included in the term “ego dissolution”. It is a state in which the boundary between you (and therefore your ego, personal sense of identity) and the outside world dissolves. This may sound very strange since we are usually aware of a physical boundary between our bodies and the world – namely our skin. Your skin marks the extent of your personal being.
But psychedelics can cause a sense of this disappearing. I liken it to getting into a warm bath and closing your eyes. You start to relax, but instead of just laying there and relaxing, you start to feel as if your body literally dissolves in the water, and that you and the molecules in the water become interconnected. It feels like a dream, and yes these are ‘weird’ experiences, but it’s what psychedelics can sometimes do.
We have five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. But there’s a sixth sense that can emerge when using psychedelics. This sixth sense is called synaesthesia, and it isn’t truly a ‘new’ sense, but a merging of different senses. You start to ‘hear’ colours and ‘see’ sounds and your usual senses don’t work normally. Other experiences are as if you’re lying in a dark room, at night and yet, you see flashing lights, bright colours, and scenes rolling across the back of your eyes as if watching a movie, a really vivid fantasy at that.
Sometimes, psychedelics cause a person to see things that others can’t. You might swat at insects that no one else can see. You can lose your sense of time – what seems like minutes to you will be hours in reality.
Sense of Oneness and Spiritual Experiences
Sometimes psychedelics produce intense experiences including visual hallucinations (seeing things that are not there), or out-of-body experiences (feeling as if you are floating above your body looking down). Users can experience intensely spiritual feelings, such as “oneness” with the universe, or with god. This can also lead to intense feelings of spirituality which can continue after the psychedelic experience.
Dissociation is a state in which parts of the brain feel as though they aren’t connected, whether it’s memories, behaviours, feelings, perceptions, or sense of self. For example, a friend of mine was taking ketamine for pain relief. When given ketamine she experienced that there was a physical disconnect between her mind and her body, and she had to really focus in order to move her feet enough to walk. She described it as if somebody had taken some scissors and cut the connection to her body, “I could see my legs but had to think hard just to make them move”.
Or if you’ve ever seen a hypnotist interact with members of an audience, then you’ve seen dissociation in action. The hypnotist will do something, classically let a watch move slowly in front of the individual, and the individual seems to instantly change. They become relaxed and unaware of their surroundings. They’ll behave differently, sometimes in embarrassing ways. They’ll be in a dissociative state. Drugs, including many psychedelics, can induce similar dissociations.
Respect the Power and the Promise of Psychedelics
People take psychedelics because of what those psychedelics do. Sometimes it can be pleasant. Sometimes it can be weird. And sometimes it can be bad. One of the problems with certain psychedelics, such as LSD, is that it’s impossible to predict who will have a ‘bad trip’. This is why psychedelics should not be used except in carefully monitored situations.
Currently, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is starting to become available with ketamine and there is active research with many others such as psilocybin and MDMA. They hold out a lot of promise, but we need to ensure their safe use before they are fully available. They should only be used in combination with appropriate therapy. And yet, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy holds great promise for many individuals with mental health issues.
Learn more about the power of psychedelics in my best-selling book: The Promise of Psychedelics, Science Based Hope for Better Mental Health.