Psychedelic integration refers to the process and goal of taking insights, lessons, visions, perspective shifts, and emotional breakthroughs from a psychedelic experience and applying them to one’s daily life in a positive way. This can encompass our attitudes, worldview, mental health, career, relationships, lifestyle, and so on and so forth.
This process of incorporating meaningful moments from a psychedelic experience into one’s life raises many questions, some of which may be pragmatic – such as trying to figure out what life changes are relevant and effective in light of what one experienced on a psychedelic.
Other points of concern, however, may centre on ethics. For example, what role should a psychedelic therapist play in aiding a person’s integration? During the so-called ‘critical period’ (up to around four weeks post-session, corresponding to the afterglow), a person will be more susceptible to change because of increased neuroplasticity. This holds important therapeutic potential in terms of what talk therapy can achieve, but this means the influence of a therapist can be particularly strong; and if a therapist forces their interpretations and worldview onto the client’s experience, this can be seen as both an affront to that client’s autonomy and a kind of epistemic harm since it frustrates the client’s capacity to make sense of his or her experiences.
These pragmatic and ethical aspects of psychedelic integration matter, especially since psychedelics are being mainstreamed in the mental health industry and society more generally, and so I hope to cover these topics in the future. But for now, I want to focus on a question that has been on my mind lately, because it seems particularly tricky to answer: Does psychedelic integration have an endpoint? There are now many articles, guides, courses, workshops, support groups, and books on psychedelic integration, but what I haven’t heard discussed much, even in conversation among psychedelic users, is: How do you know when you have integrated a psychedelic insight? Can there ever be a point when you have ‘fully integrated’ a psychedelic experience?
A Common Narrative of the Psychedelic Integration Timeline
Many psychedelic companies, educational platforms, integration coaches, writers, researchers, and psychonauts will state that psychedelic integration – turning altered states into altered traits – is a process that spans the days, weeks, months, and even years following a psychedelic experience (although some won’t state that it can take years). However, some in the industry or field of research do actually mention that integration can last a lifetime; as an example, the UNITy Project at University College London (UCL), which is studying neuroplasticity induced by tryptamine psychedelics, notes this in its definition of psychedelic integration for a related 7-day course it offers.
Stating that psychedelic integration takes days, weeks, months, and even years is telling; “even” preceding “years” means that this length of time might appear surprising and unusual. But is this only because people commonly believe that integration should occur in a matter of weeks or months? Since clinical trials on psychedelic therapy involve limited integration (occurring over the course of three weeks), people may believe that this is how long integration should take.
In fact, a few integration sessions with a therapist over the course of a few weeks is really due to time/financial constraints – often both the therapists and trial participants would like these sessions to continue. In a follow-up study of a psilocybin-assisted therapy study conducted by Imperial College London researchers, four of 19 patients (21%) reported that the two integration sessions provided in the trial were insufficient. Rosalind Watts, a clinical psychologist and former clinical lead of the Imperial College London Psilocybin for Depression trials, said: “This [integration] was always the main thing that I wanted to provide more of in our trials, but was unable to because a clinical trial run by a research organization is set up to test a substance – it’s not designed for therapy or long-term care.” I have attended a psychedelic integration circle in which trial participants from a King’s College London (KCL) psilocybin therapy for depression trial were present, and they were attending because they felt they needed integration six months after the trial ended, due to the return of emotional distress.
Believing that psychedelic integration should normally take weeks or months may also be due to common narratives in psychedelic culture, the desire for quick healing, wanting to conclude one trip as ‘done and dusted’ so one is ready for the next trip, or perhaps believing that properly integrating one trip requires tripping again for the sake of true healing and clarity (sometimes this is the case but not always).
Psychedelic Integration as Telic or Atelic
The messy reality of using psychedelics is that integration is ambiguous. It is not clear when integration reaches a point of completion, if at all. Of course, there may be specific insights that have clear implications for daily life, from the perspective of integration. For example, if you feel a strong conviction to give up an addiction during a psychedelic experience and then after you do successfully give up, say, smoking, then you could say confidently that this insight has been integrated.
By way of contrast, many other insights or profoundly emotional and moving experiences induced by psychedelics can have a much broader nature. For instance, if you feel, on a visceral level, that your life should be imbued with the positive emotions you felt in an altered state, can we really say that this intention will ever be fully realised? No one lives virtuously or contentedly all the time, and positive emotions can always be cultivated further. Moreover, changing circumstances mean that there will always be new opportunities that put psychedelic insights to the test; these situations might include difficulties in our interactions and relationships with others, personal suffering or the suffering of others, or deciding to take a new direction in life. In a 2022 study published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, a group of integration therapists conceptualise integration as “an ongoing process that never ends.”
I believe we can think of psychedelic integration either as a telic or atelic process or activity. A telic activity is one that has an endpoint, whereas – as you will guess from the name – an atelic activity does not have an endpoint. The latter can include activities like creating and appreciating art and music, reading, writing, travelling, spending time with friends and family, and going for a walk with no destination in mind. Many of our projects are clearly goal-oriented, however; they are telic, in other words, and have a point of completion. These projects include achieving certain grades, winning a competition or award, buying a house, starting a family, or getting a job or promotion.
While it may be challenging to ascertain whether a psychedelic insight will involve telic or atelic integration (there are grey areas, and what may appear telic at first could actually be atelic), there are still, nonetheless, clear cases where the distinction applies. Completing a definite goal, motivated by a psychedelic experience, is an example of telic integration, while wanting to embody a particular virtue, attitude, or positive emotional state could be an example of atelic integration since this process may never really end. There is never a ‘point’ at which you become a fully virtuous person. The development of virtue lasts a lifetime.
It is crucial, then, to stress that some psychedelic integration may last a lifetime. This is useful not just for preventing disappointment if personal issues and emotional distress return but also because it promotes the idea that tripping again for growth or healing is not always necessary (even if it might entail further insights and benefits). This does not mean that you shouldn’t trip if you haven’t integrated previous psychedelic experiences. Atelic integration only means that the lessons of a particular experience can be relevant and continually applied throughout your life and all the changes you go through.
The atelic aspect of psychedelic integration highlights that turning altered states into altered traits is often a difficult and long process. It can happen organically at times but sustained self-awareness and effort may be necessary too to ensure that shifts in patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting are long-term rather than short-term breaks in the otherwise normal rut of negative self-talk and bad habits.
Psychedelic experiences themselves should not, after all, be viewed as a panacea for mental distress (as I have emphasised before). On the one hand, this can feel frustrating for those seeking relief from emotional distress when other options have failed or been inadequate. But on the other hand, the capacity of psychedelic experiences to remain relevant throughout a lifetime means that a single experience can be so rich in meaning and wisdom that it can create beneficial ripple effects even as one approaches the end of life (indeed, psychedelics are effective at easing death anxiety).
But if integration is potentially a lifelong process, and we have continual invitations to apply psychedelic wisdom, how can individuals be supported in this process (if they feel they need support)? Spending years seeing an integration therapist or coach may prove expensive and, therefore, closed off to many (although perhaps not if the sessions are infrequent or irregular).
Another option is to attend integration circles, some of which are run by therapists involved in psychedelic therapy. Others, meanwhile, are peer-led (so not run by a mental health professional but run by someone experienced in psychedelic use and integration). These sharing circles can be free, based on donation, or fairly affordable to attend, and many find them useful for integrating challenging experiences as well as better making sense of more positive (but confusing and intense) experiences. In addition, integration may be enhanced – for some people, some of the time – when it is made a communal activity (relating to another and feeling related to, after all, can be highly clarifying in itself).
The only problem is that there aren’t many integration circles running, especially in-person ones, which may only run in certain major cities. (Such group meetings also take place online, but as many found out during the pandemic, online forms of emotional support may not feel as fulfilling as face-to-face support). There are certainly not enough integration circles to meet people’s desire to attend them, which will only increase as psychedelic use rises following decriminalisation and legalisation measures (for either medical or recreational use) and the destigmatisation of these compounds. To correct this and enable easier access to support for psychedelic integration, non-judgemental spaces to discuss experiences should become a norm – they should be widely available, with people’s geographic location or income not limiting access. Awareness of them should also be raised, so that those not really involved in the psychedelic community know that they are an option.
It is only by appreciating the sometimes lifelong nature of psychedelic integration that the culture surrounding altered states can move towards ongoing support and application of insights, rather than a model of continually ‘recharging’ or ‘resetting’ through intense psychedelic journeys. This latter model may be profitable for providers of psychedelic therapy, and may even seem natural as a form of treatment. However, there are times when to move forward effectively we need to utilise the psychedelic state without returning to it.