Psychedelics are not only mystical experiences and neuroplasticity- healing is an emotional experience.
How exactly psychedelics create healing is a puzzle. There are a lot of pieces to put together to become whole.
What happens in our brains — serotonin receptors and neuroplasticity are popular explanations for how psychedelics work. But that isn't what you or I experience on a journey.
Another fascinating aspect of psychedelics is "mystical experiences." Sometimes called ego death, we can leave our bodies to connect with the entire universe.
Mystical, "peak experience" captures the imagination and it's well documented to impact positive outcomes. But many have done psychedelics and never had this experience. And trying to have one can be disappointing.
Another psychedelic healing mechanism is challenging experiences triggering insight by confronting parts of ourselves we otherwise suppress.
Although a bit more controversial and dependent on mindset, setting, and proper support, challenging experiences can be the most influential trips, any very emotional indeed.
What makes some psychedelic experiences challenging is the feelings that accompany them, like regret, anger, or sadness. Same with a beautiful, transcendent ego dissolution- love, connection, inspiration. These are the real markers on the map of the psychedelic experience leading to healing.
Rather than ego death or repressed memories, a psychedelic experience can be more like this study participant's report:
“I was weeping, tears were flowing out of me. It wasn’t a painful crying, it was like turning on the taps, like a washing, a washing out”
Simply moving stuck emotions can be incredibly cathartic. Psychedelics have an incredible ability to help us access our feelings and is proving to be a central mechanism for psychedelic therapy.
What is an Emotional Breakthrough on Psychedelics?
Emotional Breakthroughs can be realizing how we really feel about parts of our life. We might think knowing how we feel is obvious, but it's not always.
For example, when I had my first ayahuasca experience, I realized how much I loved my partner. I knew I loved her before ayahuasca, of course. But the way the medicine amplified already intense feelings allowed me to integrate the true depth required for a successful partnership.
Through an experience of overwhelming universal love, I saw my shortcomings, selfishness, and actions I could take to show her how much she mattered. A classic "heart-opening" moment that showed me how feeling love was not enough.
Letting her know just how much of it I had was sometimes hard to integrate later, but the strength of love I felt during the ceremony helped me take the proper steps to express myself.
This kind of understanding, derived from experienced emotions with the intensity dial turned up to maximum, is at the core of healing with psychedelics.
What are Emotional, Mystical, and Challenging Experiences?
Mystical experiences are pretty unique to psychedelics and therefore get a lot of attention. A mystical experience can resemble states we read about in spiritual texts, experienced by prophets or dedicated mediators or yogis. "connecting to source" and stuff like that.
The idea of a fast track to states we can't even imagine or use ordinary language to describe is tempting. But expectations can be challenging with psychedelics, and wanting a mystical experience to happen can be disappointing. Or, if one does happen, it can be scary to navigate or confusing to integrate.
Challenging experiences are what scares many people away from psychedelics. The fear of getting into a dark loop we cannot handle, finding out hidden parts of ourselves, and otherwise facing our demons is not our first impulse. We avoid that stuff for a reason.
But the good news is emotional release or clarity often follow these exotic or intimidating experiences. And science is finally starting to include it in their models, acknowledging that:
“emotional breakthrough is a distinct component of the psychedelic experience… an essential part of psychedelic assissted therapy”
Maybe that seems obvious, but it hasn't been as central to psychedelic research as you might expect, despite our knowledge about how influential emotions are in our lives.
These strong emotions are not only a big part of a psychedelic journey but also charge our decisions on how to integrate psychedelics. With this momentum, change is possible.
The Harvard Review sums it up:
“Scientists now assume that emotions are the dominant driver of most meaningful decisions in life. Decisions serve as the conduit through which emotions guide everyday attempts at avoiding negative feelings and increasing positive feelings, even when we lack awareness of these processes.”
To be clear, the quote is not about psychedelics but emotions in general. However, when we add psychedelics, bringing awareness to the emotional process, along with good support, the value of intense emotions takes shape.
Emotions in Psychedelic Research
My favorite psychedelic research talking about emotions is related to music. Music and emotions interact in a compelling way. We don't need drugs or science to clarify that- listen to a favorite song or a piece from your youth for nostalgic feelings.
In terms of psychedelics, music has been part of the picture since ancient times. In the 60s, scientists saw this connection too. Now several 21st-century studies explore the synergy between music and psychedelics — the right music for the right person at the right time can enhance emotions and even trigger mystical experiences.
Psychedelic researcher and musician Mendel Kaelen explains it:
“There is a message intrinsically carried in music, and under the effects of psychedelics people seem to become more responsive to this… emotions can be processed more deeply. It’s a beautiful narrative. It’s like the snake biting itself in the tail.”
I get excited about "the snake biting the tail." It's a sort of feedback loop when emotions are amplified by music, feeding more profound a psychedelic experience, accessing more sensation, which the music then intensifies further.
These powerful stacking effects are precisely why psychedelic therapy, particularly in the specially curated environments being explicitly developed for psychedelic journeys, impacts the future of mental health.
How To Support an Emotional Breakthrough
I've come to appreciate psychedelics as a "performance-enhancing drug" for feeling stuff. But even if that’s the case, steroids don’t do anything if you don’t work out.
- Write it down — A lot can happen in a psychedelic experience. If you forget your new perspective you can’t integrate it. Likewise, the details matter. Capture the specific why your new perspective matters for later inspiration with lots of detail.
- Use it to Connect—do you need to have a big conversation? Get something off your chest? Expression brings insights to life and creates connections. If a talk with someone close to you feels like a lot, an psychedelic integration circle can be helpful.
- Go Slow — Some integration professionals recommend waiting 2 weeks before big life decisions. If a feeling has been repressed or is brand new taking the time to figure out how to express it can be worth the wait.