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What You Should Know About the Psychedelic Ayahuasca

A psychologist's view on whether it's right for you.

Key points

  • Celebrities and experts have been speaking out about the healing impact of the psychedelic plant ayahuasca.
  • Ayahuasca is not something to take on a whim. It must be taken with intention and under supervision.
  • Some psychedelic plants like ayahuasca have the power to uncover deeply repressed emotions and memories.

There’s been increasing buzz about psychedelic therapies. In July, bestselling author Michael Pollan highlighted their healing effects in his Netflix series, How to Change Your Mind.

This week, four-time football MVP Aaron Rodgers revealed his use of the intense psychedelic ayahuasca in 2020, crediting it with improving his career and self-love.

If you're like many people and feel confused about what the heck ayahuasca is, I'm here to offer my perspective given the mystery and misconceptions, and because I believe ayahuasca (and its biochemical cousin psilocybin, commonly known as "magic mushrooms") are game changers in the field of mental health.

This post focuses on what ayahuasca is, who it best serves, and important precautions before trying it. Part two of this post explores what’s possible, including how this potent plant medicine can impact your psyche and how it holds the potential for collective healing.

What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is not a drug, it is a medicine. A medicine made exclusively from plants. It is ingested as a tea made from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine.

Ayahuasca comes from the Amazonian regions of South America. These populations have been using it for thousands of years, believing it can help people with all kinds of mental and emotional ailments. They called ayahuasca “grandmother” (and refer to it with female pronouns) because they see her as the mother of all plant medicines. It’s understood that she is like a mother who heals you with her love but also gives you tough love when needed.

Stéfano Girardelli/Unsplash
Source: Stéfano Girardelli/Unsplash

After taking ayahuasca, there is eventually a brief period of visions in the form of fractals, as if you're looking through a kaleidoscope. This is usually followed by deep introspection in the form of downloading memories, insights, and higher consciousness, some of which can be quite metaphorical.

Prior to this, some individuals experience purging in the form of vomiting, defecating, yawning, tears, laughter, or all of the above. Some of these can be unpleasant, but I see this short period of discomfort as a small price to pay for shedding wounds you may have carried for a lifetime.

Things to Consider Before Taking Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is not to be taken lightly or tried spontaneously. She is powerful because she will confront you with your shadow before showing you your light. She will take you where you need to go, but it may not always be where you want to go.

She is not a party drug and should never be done without the guidance of experienced shamans and healers.

You also need to consider your set (mindset) and environmental setting. If your mindset is particularly troubled, such as recovering from acute loss or trauma, wait until you've had some healing and distance before trying ayahuasca. Your setting also needs to be a place that feels safe and supportive to you. A typical ayahuasca ceremony should have one or two experienced shamans and shaman assistants to provide support and containment. Unfortunately, there have been stories of shamans who have taken advantage of people under the influence of ayahuasca, preying on their vulnerability.

Know the Medical Contraindications

You must be off psychological medications like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications for at least 30 days (14 days for ADHD medications). Otherwise, you can have an overdose of neuro-chemicals in your system.

Suffice it to say, if you have a history of psychosis, or a mental illness that cannot be managed without pharmaceutical medication, ayahuasca is not right for you at this time.

How Will I Benefit From Taking Ayahuasca?

Because the medicine takes you deep into your psyche, everyone will have a different experience. However, one profound common theme that many people report is ego dissolution. Let me explain: chemicals in ayahuasca temporarily dissolve an area in our brain called the “default mode network,” home to the ego. It's important to distinguish that our functional ego gives us our sense of identity and keeps us organized and responsible. Our dysfunctional ego keeps us stuck in an over-identification of our story, creates difference, division, and hierarchy between people, leads to a “me vs. you” mentality, and fuels our need to be right.

If you surrender to the process, ayahuasca will be a journey breaking down the barricades created by your dysfunctional ego, born from your past traumas and ancestors' traumas. She takes you from separateness to connection, connection to your heart, the community, and nature.

Although she requires you to surrender for a handful of hours, know that you have control over your experience's direction. Whatever intentions you set beforehand will help guide the direction your healing goes.

If you aren't ready to confront what you've repressed or suppressed, start with psychotherapy to peel back the layers. I believe engaging in mind-body psychotherapy before trying ayahuasca can make it a better, softer experience. Some people need an integration psychologist afterward who can help them process any repressed memories or overwhelming revelations from the experience. As it's been said, the only way out is through.

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