As psychedelic therapy continues to make news as the next breakthrough treatment for ailments like PTSD, anxiety, depression and addiction, many people may wonder how psychedelic therapy actually work and what it entails. The answer is: it depends! The Western use of psychedelics for psychotherapeutic purposes has a long and rich history going back 7 decades, and over the years many different styles and approaches have been developed. While each study involving psychedelics is slightly different, there are two general approaches- “psychedelic therapy” which focus on the transformational power of one or two strong psychedelic experiences with therapists acting as guides, and “psycholytic therapy” which utilizes the mind and heart expanding power of lighter psychedelic doses at regular intervals to deepen the power of ongoing psychotherapeutic sessions.
Psychedelic vs Psycholytic Therapy
These two styles of psychedelic-infused therapy both have their merits. The states induced by strong psychedelic doses in psychedelic therapy are known for being revelatory journeys that carry a force so strong that even lifelong patterns of behavior and thought can be changed virtually overnight to alleviate trauma, eradicate substance dependency, and make way for healthy habits and positive perspectives. To get the most out of these profound experiences, therapists focus on allowing the psychedelic substance to work on the subject in a safe and supportive environment, and then provide aftercare and integration support as the lessons from the life-changing journey are translated into daily life.
Psycholytic therapy, on the other hand, places more emphasis on the role of the psychotherapist and sees the psychedelic substance as a catalyst for unlocking deeper and more impactful therapy sessions. Rather than being overwhelmed by a mystical psychedelic experience, subjects in psycholytic therapy feel the effects of the medicine but retain more control of their thoughts and emotions, allowing for a more expanded but still manageable dialogue with their therapist. This style of psychedelic-enhanced therapy was popularized by psychiatrist and LSD researcher Stanislav Grof, who found great success with it in treating a range of psychological issues.
Which is Best?
Most of the research today involving psychedelics takes the “psychedelic therapy” approach. It could be said that psychedelic therapy carries with it the biggest potential for immediate breakthrough changes in a person’s life, but it also has its limitations. Rachel Harris, psychotherapist and author of the new book Listening to Ayahuasca, raised some good points in a recent conversation about the value of ongoing and lower intensity psycholytic therapy:
“Longer term therapy doesn’t lend itself to research very well, so it’s harder to study, but this approach of psycholytic therapy used to be prevalent in Europe. I’m concerned this concept of ongoing therapy where the psychedelic medication is used as an adjunct to therapy is getting lost in our culture, which is more focused on the ‘big bang’ mystical experience. That type of research is more cost effective, and I understand the need for that, but there’s something about that slow unfolding that psycholytic therapy allows that I don’t want to be lost or forgotten.
Let me give you an example. A man I interviewed recently was in his early 60’s and has been, for lack of a better term, a ‘player’, which means he’s always had multiple superficial romantic connections. After a handful of ayahuasca ceremonies he is now recognizing a need for authentic relationships. Supportive psychotherapy of a few sessions is not going to be enough to help him stabilize this new yearning or figure out how to do it. He needs support in making these changes and continuing to value the stable relationship ideal as opposed to the thrill and fun of conquest. This requires a whole new set of learning. More than just integration and support, he needs ongoing therapy to really stabilize that new inspiration and insight.”
Embracing a Diversity of Approaches
In the big picture, we in the West are still in our infancy when it comes to understanding and harnessing the healing power of psychedelics. Our 70+ years of experience in this field pales in comparison to indigenous cultures who have formed relationships with their native psychedelic medicines for thousands of years. As such, we should leave room for a diversity of approaches when it comes to using psychedelics to treat ailments and disorders. We may find that psychedelic therapy, psycholytic therapy, microdosing, and undiscovered methods all have their place and proper application in the field of psychedelic healing.