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Can Ayahuasca ceremonies alleviate the course of grief? Losing someone is a painful and universal experience; grief is a normal answer to loss. But when the grief doesn’t decrease with time and it starts to negatively impact the person’s ability to function, it can sometimes be diagnosed as Prolonged grief disorder (PGD). In light of the resurgence of psychedelic research and the need for more effective treatment for prolonged grief, researchers set out to explore Ayahuasca – a DMT-containing indigenous brew – as a potential aid to therapy for people suffering from PGD. The study observed the experience of 50 people who joined an indigenous community in the forests of Peru. After one month the 50 subjects participated in a maximum of 9 Ayahuasca ceremonies.
Published in 2020, the research investigates whether Ayahuasca use in a ceremonial context has therapeutic potential for people dealing with grief. They discovered that Ayahuasca can alleviate the severity of the grief and increase the participant’s ability to accept.
Some meaningful numbers:
- 92.3% said that the Ayahuasca experiences at the center had a positive effect on grief symptoms,
- One year after the psychedelic retreat, it was found that for 90% of the participants, the Ayahuasca experiences had persistent benefits in their mental health and spirituality.
- 63% and 66.7% felt that the experience had a positive impact on their physical health and social relationships, respectively.
Regarding the adverse effects:
- One person reported a negative impact on their social relationships;
- In the one-year follow-up, one respondent reported adverse effects in each of the following areas: mental health, social relationships, and spirituality;
- 5.1% felt that it had no influence on their grief symptoms. 2.6% experienced adverse effects.
The study paints a picture of a natural substance that when used in a ceremonial context has a positive profile of adverse effects and is more beneficial, efficient, and long-lasting than other current methods of dealing with grief and making peace with death. However, it is important to point out that these experiences are dependent on the set, setting, and preparation. Besides that, transforming the psychedelic experience into tangible positive changes can be more challenging than the experience itself. It is important to have a supportive network to help you navigate the integration stage. Browse our integration coaches to assist you in planning your journey and integrating the lessons into a balanced lifestyle.
How does Ayahuasca help with grief?
To better benefit from sacred plants, it is necessary to take a deeper look at the mechanism behind the substance. Ayahuasca is a brew that may contain a bundle of ingredients, some psychoactive, others not so much. The main ingredients of the Ayahuasca brew made in the Amazonian rainforest include the Chacruna (Psychotria viridis) and the Vine of the Soul (Banisteriopsis caapi). Scientists attribute the effects to the substance DMT contained in the Chacruna leaves. However, the experience is only bioavailable because of the action of the vine called Banisteriopsis caapi.
The effects can be compared to classic psychedelics like psilocin and LSD. Participants often report a visual carnival of colors, patterns, and mystical visions. Experiences like synesthesia (mixing of the senses: for example, when the participant can “see what they hear”), make for a true feast for the senses in a journey-like atmosphere that immerses the participant taking them into an experience of self-discovery and acceptance. Beyond the sensory experience, the Ayahuasca journey can feel like sitting in a classroom and talking with a teacher without feeling judged.
A common characteristic of the Ayahuasca experience is the feeling of detachment from the ego. Also called death dissolution, or ego death, this experience can take the participant off-guard, leading the participant to feel a temporary urgency. As the veils of the self are taken apart layer by layer (or all at once), the participant may feel like they are going through the experience of death. However, the experience of ego death should be looked at more as an experience of rebirth and an opportunity to integrate our genuine self.
What is the science behind Ego Death?
Science points to a group of areas of the brain called the Default Mode Network (Palhano-Fontes, F. et. al 2015) that is related to organizing our day, creating routines, and is that voice in our head when we are idle or not engaged in nothing in particular, the part of the mind that is always organizing, managing, and guiding us, and we don’t even notice it. While useful, the abnormally high activity in the Default Mode Network has been linked to higher rates of obsessive rumination (incessant mental chatter), depression, and anxiety.
We now know that most of the classic psychedelics can drastically decrease the activity of the DMN, decreasing rumination and enhancing divergent thinking (Kuypers et al. 2016). With a lower DMN activity, the incessant mental chatter also reduces. The thing is: a great number of people feel attached to the obsessive mental dialogue – or monologue -, and sometimes they identify their ego with the Default Mode Network.
By detaching yourself from this particular brain network, you are in a better position to explore alternative advantage points of who you are, which invites the participants to deconstruct and rebuild the idea they had of themselves from scratch. This new-found self-image is fundamental for unlocking the transformative potential of the psychedelic experience.
Yet another important aspect of the psychedelic experience (not limited to Ayahuasca) is the potential for emotional release that comes with a mystical journey. The release of locked memories, thoughts, and emotions may come all at once during the experience, or it often comes little by little in the weeks, months (sometimes years) after the ceremony. This process allows the participant to address their innermost issues and process them in a wholesome way.
Feeling emotionally unbalanced after a psychedelic ceremony is normal. Keep track of how you feel emotionally during your integration journey. Your emotions serve as a measure of how your integration practice is progressing. The more you progress, the more you should feel a sense of life alignment with the experience, the more you feel at peace with the experience, and that you are experiencing tangible benefits (Frymann, Tomas, et al.)
Biographical Memories (Encounter with the deceased)
The mental experience of Ayahuasca can be super abstract with rapid colors and shapes, but it can also have a serene atmosphere that invites the participant to navigate old memories. Some participants even report experiencing contact with the deceased. This can encourage the participants to look within themselves, in a safe space. This process encourages the resolution of unresolved issues.
The anthropomorphic aspect of the Ayahuasca experience can be beneficial to humans facing the more challenging parts of life by offering a stage where the participant can more aptly manipulate their innermost thoughts and emotions. During the psychedelic experience, the psychonaut may be confronted with realities that normally would be too complex or too scary to face. After the ceremony, the psychedelic integration starts, and this is when the psychonaut begins to transform their mystical experience into tangible positive changes in their ordinary life. Regardless of how challenging or blessed your psychedelic experience was, integration is fundamental for those looking to grow and improve their lives by exploring altered states of consciousness.
Follow Your Journey
Having a supportive community and a coach to facilitate your integration practice is a powerful way to increase the benefits of your psychedelic ceremonies while minimizing the potential risks. An integration coach can offer support in preparing and making the most out of your ceremonies. A coach can help you map and navigate your psychedelic integration process. Browse our coaches and find the perfect match tailored to your goals and intentions:
1 – Kuypers, K.P.C., Riba, J., de la Fuente Revenga, M. et al. Ayahuasca enhances creative divergent thinking while decreasing conventional convergent thinking. Psychopharmacology 233, 3395–3403 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-016-4377-8
2 – González, D., Carvalho, M., Cantillo, J., Aixalá, M., & Farré, M. (2019). Potential Use of Ayahuasca in Grief Therapy. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 79(3), 260-285. https://doi.org/10.1177/0030222817710879
3 – The New York Times article titled: What We Know About Treating Extreme Grief With Psychedelics (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/10/well/psychedelics-grief-mental-health.html) (16 Oct 2023)
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5 – Palhano-Fontes, F., Andrade, K. C., Tofoli, L. F., Santos, A. C., S. Crippa, J. A., C. Hallak, J. E., & Ribeiro, S. (2015). The Psychedelic State Induced by Ayahuasca Modulates the Activity and Connectivity of the Default Mode Network. PLOS ONE, 10(2), e0118143. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118143
6 – González, Débora et al. “Therapeutic potential of ayahuasca in grief: a prospective, observational study.” Psychopharmacology vol. 237,4 (2020): 1171-1182. doi:10.1007/s00213-019-05446-2
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8 – González D, Carvalho M, Cantillo J, Aixalá M, Farré M. Potential Use of Ayahuasca in Grief Therapy. Omega (Westport). 2019 Aug;79(3):260-285. doi: 10.1177/0030222817710879. Epub 2017 May 30. PMID: 28556759.
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