Research on Using Ayahuasca to Treat PTSD
Studies are indicating that ayahuasca can alleviate conditions like depression and addiction, but there is also research – albeit currently limited – suggesting its efficacy in also treating PTSD, which matches many anecdotal reports from ayahuasca retreat attendees.
Preliminary research from Gerald Thomas, who studies addiction at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, found that ayahuasca can reduce drug dependence. Part of the reason for this effect is that ayahuasca can help alleviate the emotional distress associated with traumatic memories, which people sometimes try to numb with substances like alcohol and cocaine.
The Beckley Foundation has also collaborated with the Temple of the Way of Light (an ayahuasca retreat center in Peru) and ICEERS on research investigating the long-term effects of ayahuasca on mental health and quality of life in Western users. Débora González, Ph.D., who presented the findings at Psychedelic Science 2017, states:
Results so far have been striking. Over the course of a retreat – which can range from nine days to three weeks and involve five to eight ayahuasca sessions – we see a reduction in psychopathological symptoms that lasts for three months. We’re yet to conduct the six-month follow-up analysis so I can’t say if this will continue, but it’s clear that the effect is persistent.
One interesting result is that while improvements were observed in participants with four kinds of emotional distress (anxiety, depression, PTSD, and grief), patients with PTSD experienced the greatest benefits. As González remarks:
When we compare quality of life scores before and after ayahuasca treatment, we see that the biggest improvement is in those with PTSD.
Psychedelics, including ayahuasca, seem to “allow access to layers of experience that are beyond the reach of regular therapies,” says González. During the ayahuasca experience, patients can relive the emotional content of their trauma, such as fear and helplessness.
Confronting trauma during an ayahuasca journey makes it akin to exposure therapy, a traditional form of PTSD therapy. Many patients who work with ayahuasca are able to transform feelings of fear, guilt, and shame into more positive emotions like self-love and compassion, thereby meeting their unmet emotional needs.
Researchers also saw an increase in “decentering,” which is the ability to calmly observe your thoughts and feelings and detach them from your sense of self-identity, allowing you to become less judgmental and more accepting towards them.
In a 2018 paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, researcher Antonio Inserra describes his hypothesis for how ayahuasca is able to heal traumatic memories. He states:
As Ayahuasca alkaloids enhance synaptic plasticity, increase neurogenesis and boost dopaminergic neurotransmission, and those processes are involved in memory reconsolidation and fear extinction, the fear response triggered by the memory can be reprogrammed and/or extinguished. Subsequently, the memory is stored with this updated significance.