The Unique Potential of Using Psychedelics to Treat Addiction

psychedelic therapy

Addiction is a growing worldwide problem – and this applies to all kinds of addictions: behavioural (e.g. sex, gambling, and internet use), illegal drugs (e.g. heroin and cocaine), and legal substances (e.g. alcohol and prescription drugs). Traditional treatment for these addictions includes full-time rehab and further plans like staying at sober houses that focus on maintaining sobriety. However, even though these committed and long-term recovery plans help many people, others still find themselves relapsing. And given the scale of the addiction problem at hand, we need to find alternative solutions. One such solution that is receiving increased interest from people with addiction, therapists, and addiction specialists is psychedelic therapy.

This form of therapy involves an individual with a particular condition taking a high dose of a psychedelic while being supervised by one or more therapists. As part of the current ‘psychedelic renaissance’ we are living in, this period of increased scientific interest in psychedelics, researchers are discovering that psychedelic therapy is effective in the treatment of many different disorders, including addiction. Psychedelic therapy appears to help combat addiction for several important reasons.

Overcoming Trauma in Psychedelic Therapy

According to addiction specialist Gabor Maté, past trauma is the common root of many addictions. Whatever the addictive substance or behaviour may be, it helps in alleviating the emotional pain associated with the trauma, and so it is understandable that what might begin as occasional use would later turn into a hard-to-escape addiction. The addiction becomes an easy and reliable coping mechanism, but of course, it is maladaptive in the long run.

While many forms of therapy can help individuals confront the trauma that has led to their addiction, many patients find this process to be slow, drawn-out, expensive, or simply ineffective. Because there are many psychological barriers that prevent individuals from revisiting their trauma and working with it, it may take a long time before noticeable (if any) progress is made in overcoming that trauma.

In a psychedelic therapy session, on the other hand, these barriers and defences are more easily broken down, so an individual is often forced to confront his or her trauma, which can be frightening, but it ultimately turns out to be a positive, healing experience. Due to the emotionally turbulent nature of such an experience, it is ideal for the psychedelic experience to be coupled with psychological support from a therapist, as this allows the individual to know they can safely explore his or her trauma and receive emotional support or guidance if needed.

The Mystical Experience 

Researchers have generally found that it is the mystical experience that reliably predicts an individual’s effective recovery from his or her condition. One study, for example, underscored this was the case for tobacco addiction. Patients who scored higher on measures of the mystical experience (such as a sense of unity, transcendence of time and space, ineffability, and sacredness) were more likely to quit smoking.

It seems that the mystical experience leads to significant improvements in personal meaning and well-being following the experience and this can be why addiction is less likely to be continued; after all, for many people, it is underlying discontent and lack of meaning that fuelled addiction in the first place. If a psychedelic-induced mystical experience can ignite positive feelings in you, in the long term, then you won’t need drugs or alcohol to provide such feelings (which are never equal or sustainable replacements for inner-driven joy and contentment).

The Role of the Therapist in Psychedelic Therapy

Many people struggling with addiction can successfully kick their habit and avoid relapse by taking psychedelics on their own or during a retreat (in which a guide is present, but not a professionally trained therapist). Nonetheless, the purpose of the therapist in psychedelic-assisted therapy is to help prepare the patient for the experience and help them to integrate it. A guide or facilitator will also aim to do this during a psychedelic retreat, say, with ayahuasca or mushrooms, but having the knowledge and experience of a trained professional may prove more effective. The therapist can be better equipped to deal with a patient’s problems before they dive into the experience and after, which is when the patient can openly discuss the quality of the experience and the psychological material it brought up.

While studies on psychedelic therapy don’t tend to involve too many sessions with a therapist after the psychedelic experience, it is believed that continued sessions with a therapist can help an individual properly integrate their experience. This will help to create greater and longer-lasting effects on personal meaning and well-being, which is a crucial aspect of addiction recovery.

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