Supporting Addiction With Psychedelics [The Complete Guide]
This guide on the psychedelic treatment of addiction is written by Benjamin Taub from psychedelicsforaddiction.com.
Psychedelics provide access to realms of consciousness that mainstream therapies simply can’t reach, and have been used to treat a range of mental health issues for centuries. A small but growing body of research is now revealing the power of psychedelics to facilitate recovery from addiction; although a lack of cultural wisdom regarding the use of these substances means the role they play in the healing process is often misunderstood.
Ibogaine, for instance, has been wrongly labelled a “cure” for drug addiction due to its capacity to eliminate withdrawal symptoms from opioids and other drugs, while a smattering of small studies indicates that LSD, psilocybin, and ayahuasca may also have a part to play in the treatment of the condition. While none of these substances should be considered “magic bullets,” when used correctly they can facilitate experiences that provide people with the tools to construct their own recovery.
Understanding how psychedelics fit into this process first requires an appreciation of the nature of addiction.
Listen to our podcast episode with Trevor Millar talking about How Inner Reflection Catalyzes External Evolution or Click here to read the transcript
Addiction: An Opposing View
Contrary to popular opinion, addiction is not caused by drugs – even though their repeated use can lead to withdrawal symptoms and physiological dependence. Rather, as Gabor Mate, Eckhart Tolle, Johann Hari, and many other experts have noted, addiction begins with an inability to connect to a sense of meaning, value, and purpose in life and in oneself. Compulsive drug use and drug abuse then occurs as a form of escape from the pain associated with the experience of living. In other words, addiction is not a pharmacological condition; it is an existential condition with pharmacological consequences.
It is therefore no coincidence that addiction rates have spiralled with the rise of Western modernity, which is saturated with consumerism and devoid of genuine rites of passage from which meaningful identities can be attained. Through skilful use of psychedelics, however, it is possible to reconnect to a wiser, more ancient and more fulfilling narrative, re-inject a sense of meaning into life and overcome the need to self-medicate.
Inspiration for this can be drawn from the Native American Church (NAC), which uses the natural psychedelic peyote to successfully treat alcoholism among its members by directly targeting the cultural and spiritual disconnection that underlies addiction. By preparing properly for their visionary experiences, NAC members are able to utilise psychedelic states of consciousness as tools to reframe their life story and rediscover their place along an ancestral path known as the “Peyote Road.” This generates a renewed sense of identity, purpose and self-worth as people come to see themselves as a vital link in a cosmic chain that binds past, present and future generations, enabling them to overcome the isolation and meaninglessness that previously coloured their life experience.
Dissolving the Ego
Recovery from addiction thereby occurs via a rite of passage, whereby the ego is transformed and a new sense of self is developed. This results in a complete reframing of the constant mental chatter in a person’s head, freeing them from the negative internal narratives that had previously compelled them to self-medicate and allowing them to start making better decisions in life.
In Western contexts, however, communal rituals and spiritual narratives are lacking, meaning those undergoing psychedelic treatment for addiction may need to put in more of their own footwork if they are to achieve a similar outcome. Ibogaine clinics and ayahuasca or psilocybin retreats can provide safe and caring environments for people to enter into psychedelic states, yet these experiences alone do not bring about recovery. Rather, by temporarily dissolving the ego, they generate transpersonal insights and a sense of universal oneness and belonging, momentarily transforming feelings of isolation into a general sense of connection.
Yet as psychologist Ralph Metzner has pointed out, “having an insight is not the same as being able to apply that insight,” and it is therefore up to each individual to harness the wisdom of their psychedelic experience in order to construct their own new life path – one that provides them with a lasting sense of fulfilment and frees them from the need to use drugs or alcohol. Even ibogaine, which has become so revered for its withdrawal-busting properties, is not an answer to addiction unless it is incorporated into a wider strategy for taking control of one’s life.
Taking the First Step
Fortunately, ongoing serotonin regulation after psychedelic treatment regularly leads to what is known as the afterglow period, which can last for anything from a few days to several months. During this time, emotions tend to be more balanced and it becomes easier to deal with addictive thoughts, allowing people to start becoming more mindful, making the right decisions and changing the way they live. The experience is often conceptualized as a mental defrag, providing an opportunity to tweak the coding and upload new software. However, it is essential to make the most of this opportunity by implementing the correct mental practises and beginning the work of reconstructing one’s lifestyle. For more guidance on how to achieve this, visit www.psychedelicsforaddiction.com.
Invariably, the groundwork for recovery must be laid before undergoing psychedelic treatment, as rites of passage are not achieved without preparation, and building a new life is not something that can be done without considerable planning and forethought. This begins with developing a commitment to self-examination and self-actualization rather than mere detoxification. Doing so will make it easier to set the correct intention for the psychedelic experience itself and attain the kinds of insights that can bring about recovery. Recruiting a support network to help fortify one’s new identity and lifestyle going forward is also something that must be undertaken prior to treatment, while setting up a plan for integration is vital to the recovery process as well.
Treating Addiction With Psychedelics – Preparation
Ibogaine and other psychedelics have enormous potential to facilitate recovery from addiction, but a lack of proper preparation often leads to either a failure to get clean or a brief period of sobriety followed by a relapse. By laying the groundwork correctly, however, it is possible to undergo a genuine rite of passage and transform the painful aspects of the psyche, paving the way for a rewarding and satisfying new life after addiction.
As is always the case with psychedelics, “set and setting” play a major role in determining the nature and outcome of the experience. “Set” refers to the state of a mind of a person using psychedelics, including aspects such as intentionality, expectation and motivation, while “setting” relates to the environment in which the experience takes place. It is typically the former that requires the most work when preparing for psychedelic treatment for addiction, as developing the correct mentality can make all the difference between success and failure.
Preparing the Mind
First and foremost, this requires a realistic understanding of what to expect: psychedelics cannot make you give up drugs or provide you with immunity to their effects, but they can empower you to take control of your life and start making better decisions. They do this by helping people come to terms with the reservoir of subconscious pain that compels them to self-medicate. In other words, psychedelics remove the need to use addictive drugs by helping people become more comfortable with who they are, which is why it is essential to approach treatment with a genuine commitment to self-knowledge and self-actualization, rather than just detoxification.
It is no coincidence that in all indigenous cultures that use psychedelic plants for healing, those being treated are required to undergo a period of psychological preparation before they are given any consciousness-altering substances. Renowned anthropologist Arnold van Gennep was the first to recognize the importance of this preparatory phase, describing how those undergoing transformation learn to disengage from the parts of their psyche that have hit a roadblock and must be outgrown. In doing so, they enter into a so-called “liminal” state whereby they are released from certain aspects of their social conditioning and are therefore free to connect to a more rewarding and actualized version of themselves during their psychedelic experience. In some cultures, this process is symbolically enforced by the temporary removal of names, while in other more extreme cases initiates are required to physically depart from their social roles and spend a period of time living alone in the forest.
Similarly, anyone hoping to overcome addiction must first begin the work of disengaging from the parts of their self-image that keep them trapped in pain and continually hijack their decision-making by compelling them to self-medicate. Though it isn’t necessary to retreat into the woods, it is essential to begin developing an awareness of the culturally-conditioned narratives that perpetuate one’s subconscious pain, and generating an intention to transform this internal chatter.
For example, some may have a deep-seated narrative of inadequacy, which can become activated by even the slightest setbacks in life. At such times, their inner voice bombards them with insults and accusations, damaging self-esteem and creating a spiral of negativity that becomes the motivation for drug use. However, becoming aware of this subconscious process leads to the understanding that one’s self-image is nothing but a conditioned narrative and is not a true reflection of one’s authentic self. Learning to distance oneself from this narrative prior to treatment will make it possible to finally connect to a more meaningful, uplifting, and actualized self-image during the psychedelic experience.
The Lifestyle Element
As well as identifying the internal narratives that dictate one’s decision-making, it is also necessary to begin analyzing how these are perpetuated and reinforced by one’s lifestyle. For example, turbulent relationships or chaotic living conditions may be contributing to one’s inauthentic self-image by mobilizing a narrative of failure, abandonment, or inadequacy, and generating the pain that creates the need to use drugs. Since psychedelic treatment is not really about drug use per se, but rather aims at transforming the narratives behind the addiction, it is important to start taking measures to eliminate lifestyle factors that hold one’s former narrative in place. This may involve anything from altering one’s social network to redecorating one’s apartment and will vary from person to person.
Naturally, many people find it difficult to reshape their lifestyle while they are still gripped by addiction, and the process of rebuilding one’s day-to-day life is something that generally occurs after undergoing treatment and getting clean. However, it is important to remember that psychedelics do not provide all the answers. Instead, they open the door for those who want to become more aware of the existential processes that dictate their decision-making and begin making more conscious choices that are not driven by subconscious pain.
Identifying and distancing oneself from some of the issues that perpetuate this pain prior to treatment creates vital space to begin putting one’s psychedelic insights into practice and learning to navigate the world anew after treatment. In other words, preparing properly creates space for integration by generating an environment in which one can explore, develop, and fortify one’s new connection to life without being derailed by one’s old triggers.
The Next Step
Once you have identified and understood the parts of yourself that are linked to addictive behaviors, you will be better equipped for the psychedelic experience itself. The next step is to know what to expect in the experience, and how to confront the dark sides of your psyche without losing yourself.
Treating Addiction With Psychedelics – The Experience
Undergoing psychedelic treatment for addiction can be a truly life-changing experience, and provides an opportunity to develop a healthier connection to the world and become more in tune with oneself.
However, the nature of the visions produced varies greatly from person to person and can range from uplifting spiritual experiences to dark encounters with one’s inner demons. There is no telling what will be revealed, so it is important to approach treatment with an open mind and a willingness to accept and learn from whatever comes up. Surrendering to the experience and simply observing all visions without judging or resisting them is the key to getting the most benefit from them.
Preparing well is also a necessity for those who wish to develop the correct mentality and enter into the visionary experience in a headspace that is conducive to recovery. This involves cultivating an appreciation of the fact that the visions experienced may not contain any direct answers to the conundrum of addiction, but instead offer guidance as how to become more self-aware. The most challenging psychedelic experiences are therefore often the most valuable, as they can provide the greatest opportunities to learn about oneself and become more conscious of the processes that drive one’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and decisions.
Because choosing the right treatment modality is an important first step, here is everything you need to know about the psychedelics that are most commonly used in the treatment of addiction.
Ibogaine is the only substance known to eliminate withdrawal symptoms from opioids, cocaine, and other drugs, and is therefore often used to treat people who want to get clean without having to go cold turkey. In addition to its unparalleled detoxifying properties, ibogaine also produces an intense visionary experience that can last from six to 24 hours, heavy ataxia that can sometimes take a few days to wear off, and a strong physical purge that may involve prolonged vomiting and other excretions.
Though ibogaine clinics exist across the world, they are not recognized or regulated by any mainstream medical bodies, which means that standards and practices vary enormously from place to place. However, most clinics subscribe to the industry standards put in place by the Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance, which has created a list of guidelines that all ibogaine providers worldwide are expected to comply with. This includes a requirement for a medical doctor to be present throughout treatment, as well as certain equipment such as an electrocardiogram machine for continual heart monitoring.
The fact that such precautions are needed tells you that ibogaine is not risk-free, and for that reason should never be taken at home or without the supervision of an experienced facilitator. This is primarily because of ibogaine’s cardiac effects, and particularly the way in which it prolongs the phase of the heartbeat known as the QT interval, which is the length of time it takes for the ventricles to electrically depolarize and repolarize.
Most ibogaine clinics will offer capsules of either ibogaine hydrochloride, which contains 99% ibogaine, Total Alkaloid, which contains 40% to 50% ibogaine as well as around a dozen other alkaloids extracted from the root bark, or a more refined mixture called Pure Total Alkaloid. The amount needed for a “flood dose” depends on the body weight and general condition of the person undergoing treatment. Only an experienced practitioner should be trusted to determine the dosage used.
In general, the nature of the experience will depend upon the type of addiction being treated. Those who use stimulants like crack cocaine, for example, tend to find themselves back on their feet fairly quickly and experience an immediate surge of energy and elation in the days after their flood dose. However, people with a lengthy history of using long-lasting opioids like methadone or Subutex often find that energy levels remain very low for several days after treatment. This can be exacerbated by the fact that it is normally not possible to sleep for the first few nights after taking a flood dose of ibogaine.
When this all adds up, negative feelings may rise to the surface, leading to what is commonly referred to as the “grey day.” This is one of the biggest challenges faced by those using ibogaine, and some may take it as an indication that treatment has failed because they don’t feel as wonderful as they had expected to. However, it is important to remember that this discomfort is only temporary and will eventually pass, giving way to the elation of the psychedelic afterglow. With this in mind, it is advisable to use the grey day as an opportunity to work on self-awareness by observing the ways in which the mind attaches to the pain and suffering in order to create a sense of negativity and generate an excuse to crave drugs.
Typically, people tend to describe a sense of having been “reset” once the effects of ibogaine have worn off, as the sudden removal of their withdrawals allows them to experience their mind and body in a non-addicted state – often for the first time in years. By extension, they also have the opportunity to reset their lives, as they are no longer bound by a physiological need for drugs to associate with the same people, frequent the same places, or participate in the same routines as before.
However, this is where the real work begins, as it is now the responsibility of each individual to learn to walk a new path that doesn’t lead them back into their old lifestyle. The insights gained during the psychedelic experience can provide the perfect guidance as to how to achieve this, which is why it is so important to integrate and develop them in the weeks and months after treatment.
Unlike ibogaine, ayahuasca is rarely offered in medicalized clinics, and is more commonly provided by indigenous healers and shamans in Latin America. This creates plenty of room for charlatans or irresponsible practitioners to offer unsafe treatments, so it’s important to do plenty of research when choosing a base for treatment.
A recent project conducted by the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS) found that ayahuasca treatment in conjunction with psychotherapy led to major improvements in mindfulness among people suffering from a range of different mental, emotional, and spiritual disorders. This led to considerable reductions in symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, suggesting that this approach could also be effective for addiction.
Although ayahuasca can’t take away withdrawal like ibogaine does, the researchers behind the ICEERS project noted that participants who drank ayahuasca were able to access regions of their psyche that they normally have great trouble connecting to. This enabled many of them to work through deep-seated psychological pain, resulting in a greater awareness of the subconscious processes behind their suffering and an increased ability to deal with difficult thoughts and feelings without being overwhelmed by them.
Therefore, while ayahuasca won’t directly cure anyone’s addiction, it can provide them with the tools they need to become more conscious of the psychological processes driving their cravings and cultivate an ability to simply observe addictive thoughts and feelings while choosing not to act on them.
As with ayahuasca, psilocybin—the main psychoactive compound in “magic” mushrooms—contributes to the treatment of addiction by helping people become more connected to themselves and to the world around them. It won’t remove withdrawals or cravings overnight, but is a powerful tool for those who are looking to discover themselves on a deeper level, come to terms with psychological pain, and enhance their awareness of the subconscious processes underlying their addiction.
Research into the anti-addictive potential of psilocybin is scant, but one small study conducted in 2014 found that 80% of participants were able to quit smoking following a course of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. When analyzing the data, the study authors found that “mystical experiences” were the biggest contributing factor to the success of treatment, and that those who encountered a sense of communion with a higher power under the effects of psilocybin were all able to give up tobacco.
As with many other psychedelics, psilocybin, ayahuasca, and ibogaine often generate an experience known as ego-dissolution, whereby the barriers of the self seem to fall away, leading to a sense of oneness with the universe. This facilitates recovery by enabling individuals to let down their psychological defense mechanisms, access and embrace the painful and suppressed regions of their psyche, and re-establish a lost connection to their authentic self.
The Final Step
Once the experience itself is over, the final step for the patient is to reflect on what they’ve learned, and put the therapy into practice. Integration is the last part of any psychedelic therapy, and must be done mindfully and with intention.
Treating Addiction With Psychedelics – Integration
As mentioned in part three, the ego-dissolution that typically occurs during psychedelic experiences facilitates healing by temporarily transforming inner narratives of isolation and negativity into feelings of connectedness, belonging, and self-acceptance. This is often hugely therapeutic as it enables people to let down their defense mechanisms and fearlessly confront their inner pain, resulting in a greater awareness of the blind spots within their psyche that have been driving their addictive thoughts and behaviors.
Yet this effect will not last forever, which is why it is so important to integrate and develop these insights in order to avoid slipping back into one’s previous mode of thinking and acting. Or as psychiatrist Roger Walsh puts it, integration ensures that psychedelic wisdom is upgraded “from state to trait,” becoming a permanent feature of the psyche rather than a momentary experience.
Listen to our podcast episode with Deanne Adamson talking about: The three stages of psychedelic integration coaching or Click here to read the transcript
Get Some Breathing Space
People struggling with addiction often lead chaotic lives that bring them into contact with stressful situations and toxic influences, all of which serve to activate the subconscious pain and negative mental chatter that derail their ability to make good decisions. Psychedelic therapy provides an opportunity to transform this inner narrative, but this can’t occur in an environment that continually reinforces it.
For this reason, it is highly beneficial to spend some time away from home immediately after treatment, gaining some space in which to allow new neuronal pathways to form that alter the way one relates to life. Establishing these neural connections will provide the tools that are needed to remain grounded when confronted with difficult situations after returning home.
This is best achieved by immersing oneself in nature during this hiatus from daily life. Activities like swimming in rivers, hiking through the forest or sleeping out under the stars all help to reinforce a sense of oneness with the universe, and prolong the experience of being part of something profound and permanent that transcends one’s daily struggles. As a consequence, challenging situations become easier to navigate, as they no longer generate a sense of shame, inadequacy, or isolation.
This task is made easier by the lingering serotonin regulation that occurs throughout the psychedelic afterglow period, leading to an elevation in mood and positive emotion. Yet it is essential to make the most of this opportunity by engaging in activities that generate natural endorphins, rewiring the brain and imprinting a lasting connection to a sense of value in life.
Keep the Channels Open
Obviously, it is not possible to spend one’s whole life running from reality, and it is necessary to return to one’s home environment after a period of time. Hopefully, the insights and self-awareness gained by now will provide protection against the triggers that await, creating the freedom to start implementing certain lifestyle changes.
Yet as each day brings new and unexpected challenges, it is important to remain aware of how novel events and scenarios threaten one’s recovery by triggering unconscious modes of thinking and acting. Developing self-awareness on an ongoing basis is essential in order to continue making conscious decisions without falling back into the clutches of negative mental chatter. Practices that promote mindfulness are therefore hugely beneficial as they help people remain tuned into their psychological blind spots and recognize when subconscious pain or inauthentic narratives are driving their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Meditation, yoga, and microdosing are all excellent practices that can help to bolster self-awareness, and at least one such activity should be incorporated into a strategy for integrating the experience of psychedelic treatment for addiction.
Get a Support Network
Whether they like it or not, those closest to a person undergoing psychedelic treatment for addiction play an integral role in the recovery process and need to understand how their actions contribute to the final outcome. Recruiting their support or finding a community of people that are equipped to facilitate one’s growth is therefore essential. This support network may be made up of family and friends, psychedelic mentors, or a counseling group.
First and foremost, the function of this group is to encourage the person in recovery to explore and discover their true self without reigniting old narratives by passing judgment or making demands. Very often, the relatives of a person undergoing ibogaine treatment expect recovery to occur automatically once withdrawals have been removed, and are somewhat disappointed when that person requires more time to fully find his or herself and develop the awareness that is needed to start making better choices in all areas of life. These expectations can be extremely damaging as they deny a person ownership of their own recovery; as soon as that person feels pressure to recover on someone else’s terms, they become driven by the shame of not living up to expectations. When this occurs, they lose the capacity for conscious decision-making as their thoughts, feelings, and actions are now dictated by the subconscious pain associated with letting family members down and the negative self-image attached to this.
Ultimately, integration is all about learning to live in freedom from the conditioned narratives that mobilize the pain behind addictive behaviours, and any people, places, or situations that impede this are detrimental to the chances of recovery. Surrounding oneself with people who are able to comprehend and support this process is therefore essential. This may involve educating one’s friends and family about the role they play in the recovery process or contacting an experienced psychedelic counselor who can advise on how to refine one’s immediate social environment.
To learn more about using psychedelics to bring about recovery from addiction, visit www.psychedelicsforaddiction.com.
Psychedelic therapists are trained clinicians who can support you before, during, and after your psychedelic journeys. To find the therapist who matches your mental health goals and preferred plant medicines, visit Third Wave’s vetted psychedelic therapist Directory.