Be it plant spirit, a chemical cocktail that triggers our innate wisdom, or some mysterious blend of both, ayahuasca has a profound capacity to illuminate the issues underlying depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Often what’s revealed is the unprocessed trauma lying at the root of these. By bringing awareness directly to the source, deep healing can occur.
Neurological research indicates that trauma doesn’t impact the cortical (rational) brain as much as the limbic (emotional) brain.
Ayahuasca is known to affect the deeper regions of the brain where trauma is encoded, in ways that may parallel the effects of body-based trauma healing therapies like Somatic Experiencing (SE) and Sensorimotor Processing.
EMDR is another highly effective trauma healing method that facilitates the adaptive integration of traumatic information; again, it impacts the limbic system, activating the brain’s information-processing complex through bilateral eye movements that trigger spontaneous healing processes.
Research hasn’t conclusively identified the neurophysiological mechanisms through which either body-based trauma healing or EMDR work, much less ayahuasca, but certain similarities between the experiences reported with each — the spontaneous emergence of an objective viewpoint, healing imagery, the resolution of past pain — suggest that ayahuasca may be activating a related set of natural processes, signaling an area for potential research.
A Deeper Look at Trauma
Trauma is the physiological and emotional imprint created by anything that’s too much, too fast, or too soon for the nervous system to handle: a dramatic incident like an accident or rape, or an ongoing stressful situation, like living with parents who constantly argue. Trauma can be generated particularly easily in children who lack sufficient support.
The tragedy of trauma lies in how its suffering extends long past the moment of a particular event. Stuck in a state that’s either hyper- or hypo-aroused, the nervous system reacts as if the traumatic event is still happening, creating a filter that alters one’s experience in the present moment.
Trauma is thus inherent, not a particular event or circumstance, but in the impact of what happened, as engraved in our physiology by involuntary neurological responses.
The numbing that the child resorted to in order to survive an unbearable experience becomes an unconscious mode of functioning embedded within the adult’s nervous system. No amount of willpower can change this pattern, although, with skillful work, it is possible to unwind the effects and heal.
The effects of trauma are much more extensive than the narrow diagnostic criteria for PTSD might suggest. Most pervasively, trauma manifests as a chronic sense of disconnection—from others, from one’s surroundings, from one’s authentic self.
An over-activated or numbed nervous system is simply not in touch with the sensations and emotions that serve as messengers of the whole, embodied self
Often, trauma victims don’t recognize that their struggles with anxiety, depression or addiction arise from the impact of the past. Trauma thus lies at the root of many individual and societal disorders. It has “become so commonplace that most people don’t even recognize its presence,” notes Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing.
In this grim terrain, whatever capacity ayahuasca might have to heal trauma would be most welcome. As Rick Doblin, Director of MAPS, observes, “The numerous anecdotal accounts of people reporting that ayahuasca experiences helped them overcome their PTSD justify a scientific study.”
Ayahuasca: Exposure Therapy or Somatically Based Therapy?
The way that ayahuasca works with trauma has been compared to exposure therapy, but in my clinical experience, its effects seem a great deal more nuanced and varied.
Exposure therapy is a cognitive-behavioral treatment designed to create habituation to a feared stimulus, often through having the person repeat a detailed description of the traumatic event. It’s been criticized as the “cruelest cure” and “among the worst possible treatments”
Ayahuasca, on the other hand, seems to strengthen one’s sense of self and agency, addressing the somatic basis of trauma while activating internal resources. It appears to engender a wider and more skilled set of responses than exposure therapy.
It may seem farfetched to suggest that ayahuasca can work like a somatically-based trauma therapist, but I’ve noted intriguing parallels between ayahuasca experiences and the process I’ve witnessed with trauma healing methods like EMDR and Somatic Experiencing.
In this article, I’ll offer some empirical observations on how ayahuasca works with trauma, drawing on my background as a psychotherapist trained in EMDR and SE. Some of these I’ve seen in my work as an integration therapist; others I’ve noted in my own experiences.
Six Ways Ayahuasca Heals Trauma
1. Evoking and re-living experiences
Ayahuasca’s propensity to dredge up past traumas in vivid form is well-known. It seems to have an unerring capacity to zero in on unresolved past experiences blocking one’s growth.
In ceremony, these are frequently witnessed from a third-person point of view, complete with the emotions one felt at the time. This blend of broadened perspective and amplified emotion generates empathy for the younger self who suffered this experience. I’ve witnessed similar occurrences spontaneously arising with EMDR, suggesting an area for potential research.
2. Releasing repressed memories
An ayahuasca session can unearth buried memories. Frequently, this involves childhood trauma, although suppressed memories from overwhelming events experienced as an adult can also arise. Often, the experience is relived in the observer-like fashion described above.
Sometimes it appears in visionary form as a long-ignored soul fragment; a neglected child or dead baby seen inside one’s body.
Vomiting or other forms of purging (diarrhea, tears, shaking, yawning) can accompany the emergence of this material. While these experiences can be cathartic, they don’t need to be retraumatizing. By releasing past memories and their accompanying emotions, ayahuasca rebalances the psyche, creating room for growth.
3. Amplifying emotions and sensations, bringing awareness into the body
A key aspect of somatic psychotherapy involves exploring a client’s internal, embodied experience in the present moment: this is “bottom-up” processing, as opposed to the “top-down” of talk therapy.
Ayahuasca does this extremely well, triggering intensely visceral waves of somatic and emotional information to free what’s been long held in the body. This release can emerge in the form of vomiting, trembling, yawning, or sensations of heat or freezing cold — all recognized signs of trauma discharge in body-based trauma therapies.
Ayahuasca excels at dredging up material from a level deeper than the surface story, bringing feelings into congruence with past experiences, known or unknown. All this happens through the medium of embodiment, the often-ignored “felt sense” that’s part of our human birthright.
In somatically-based trauma healing, work at the body level is said to stimulate the “vertical integration” of the primitive and thinking brain; ayahuasca may be doing something similar.
4. Offering new realizations
Insights that arise in ceremony can bring healing perspectives on oneself and one’s past. Similar to the spontaneous shifts evoked by EMDR, these can manifest in sudden understandings, expressed as:
“I saw that there is nothing wrong with me”; “It wasn’t my fault; I was an innocent child”; “I did the best I could.”
Realizations pursued for years in psychotherapy sometimes emerge spontaneously in a single ceremony, with the bone-deep understanding that, “Yes, there were bad circumstances in my life, but that doesn’t mean that I’m bad.” Knowing that what happened to you is simply what happened, and is not you, lies at the very heart of trauma healing.
In bringing the wisdom of the adult self to the pain one suffered as a child, ayahuasca reconnects fragmented facets of the self, freeing one to choose a more compassionate interpretation of the past.
Often this is something along the lines of, “I needed to be taken care of. I wasn’t. Now I’m big enough to take care of those smaller, younger parts of me.”
In creating new experiences that contradict the limitations imposed by trauma, you are changing your neurological wiring.
5. Resourcing the nervous system with positive experiences
Ayahuasca’s capacity to generate positive support is well-documented. A hallmark of the ayahuasca experience is the sudden transformation, “from hell to heaven”, that catapults the ayahuasca drinker from turmoil to a sense of peace, calm, and healing.
In Somatic Experiencing, we might call this resourcing — positive experiences that help reverse trauma’s deep tracing on the nervous system, allowing it to shift towards groundedness and resilience.
In the context of ayahuasca, this can occur through the spontaneous emergence of resources like:
Healing imagery. This includes visions of exquisite beauty or universal love, as well as one’s own healing capacity, resilience, or ability to create a different reality.
Emotional support. Feelings of love, safety, or connection can arise spontaneously, focusing on a loved one (living or deceased), a spiritual figure, or visionary beings.
Sense of wholeness. Sometimes one’s full human essence is spontaneously revealed, as the capacity for wisdom and love existing within every being.
To see that you remain a complete human being, regardless of the trauma you’ve experienced, is one of the most precious experiences reported. Powerful encounters with essential qualities like courage, love, or unity are also common
6. Generating compassion and forgiveness for self and others
Participants may report seeing an image of their injured or neglected younger selves, inspiring a more conscious and compassionate relationship with these exiled parts.
Also, ayahuasca drinkers with a history of abuse frequently report being shown the trauma their perpetrator suffered in his or her own life, and the wounding that resulted. A client who had been molested by her father as a child reported:
“As I was being shown the suffering that happened in his life, I kept hearing the words repeated: ‘Anyone seeing this would have compassion’” (personal communication, August 23, 2016).
The deeper understanding that arises can lead to genuine forgiveness of the perpetrator.
Self-forgiveness can emerge as well, absolving one of personal guilt and excessive regret. This doesn’t erase the responsibility one may carry, but a crippling sense of self-blame can be released, sometimes in a single night.
Again, I’ve witnessed this kind of spontaneous transformation occur with EMDR as well.
After the Ceremony: Trauma Healing and Integration
It’s by no means a sure thing that ayahuasca will clear your trauma in a single ceremony, or even a series of them. Often, follow-up work is necessary to complete what’s been started. It takes ego strength, emotional wisdom, and a strong commitment to growth to work through what’s been released.
If I were to envision a psychotherapy of the future that successfully used ayahuasca in trauma healing, I’d like to see small groups of screened participants receiving comprehensive support: well-sequenced ayahuasca ceremonies alternating with somatically-based trauma healing sessions, accompanied by a whole range of approaches to expand understanding of the all-important inner world.
Repairing the damage that trauma creates in body and brain is an intricate and delicate dance calling for multiple levels of skilled intervention. Like the better-known techniques of EMDR and somatic trauma therapy, ayahuasca may well have a valuable contribution to make to this field.