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When Mysticism Becomes Medicine

Psychedelics are astounding researchers and patients alike with their healing properties.

Trauma has become one of the most exciting areas of medical research and therapeutic treatment today. Revolutionary discoveries about the mind-body unity of the human person are bringing hope to many people living with deeply embedded emotional and psychological pain. Books like The Body Keeps the Score by the Dutch scientist Bessel Van Der Kolk and When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by the Canadian physician Gabor Maté are international best-sellers on trauma.

The word “trauma” comes from the Greek word meaning “wound.” Trauma is a psycho-somatic wound – a psychic wound that produces bodily (soma-) consequences. We began to be aware of trauma after war veterans returned home. After witnessing or committing horrendous acts, they were diagnosed with “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD). Then it wasn’t only veterans who showed signs of trauma but also adults who were abused or neglected throughout childhood (what’s come to be called Complex-PTSD).

The British psychotherapist Benjamin Fry (author of the excellent book, The Invisible Lion) has described living with the after-effects of trauma as having the constant threat of a lion about to attack and kill you. It is life with your nervous system, your “fight or flight” response, always going off. It is life on a rollercoaster between debilitating stress, anxiety, panic and distraction or incapacitating depression, catastrophizing, lethargy and numbness.

Beyond the medical model

The standard medical treatment for trauma is prescription anti-depressants and counselling. But problems with this recipe have plagued doctors for years – the pills don’t always work (even after trying many different ones) and therapy is expensive and rarely covered by private insurance. This leaves traumatized patients suffering.

Van Der Kolk and Maté have contributed many more medically-tested suggestions for the treatment of trauma. Many with PTSD and C-PTSD find great relief from exercise, massage, yoga, breathing exercises, journalling and performing in drama workshops. But one area of fascinating potential is the use of psychedelics.

Yes, you read that right: psychedelics are astounding researchers and patients alike with their healing properties. Compounds such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD or “acid”), psilocybin (the active agent in “magic mushrooms”), 3,4-Methyl enedioxy methamphetamine (MDMA or “ecstasy”), the South American brew Ayahuasca, Ketamine and even cannabis are being extensively studied. In general, doctors and their patients attribute the healing to both the properties of the chemicals but also the profound mystical experiences within human consciousness produced by the plants.

Healing potential

Leading researchers now understand the various levels of human consciousness better. Psychedelics allow someone with (C-)PTSD to enter a state of altered consciousness in a way that allows them to revisit the source of their trauma safely, to experience themselves as loved and safe and whole, and then begin the journey of building a healthier life free from the unhealthy patterns that developed as methods for coping with the trauma.

It should be emphasized that psychedelics are powerful plant medicines. They should not be taken lightly. Especially the young (under at least 25 years old) or those with a personal or family history of mood disorders should rely on their physician’s wisdom. But for a growing number of trauma-survivors, psychedelics have allowed them to feel like themselves again. Gabor Maté’s new book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture, or Michal Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, are excellent introductions to the dynamics and treatment of trauma with psychedelics.

The role of mystical experiences (through therapeutic psychedelics) in the healing of trauma should come as no surprise to Reformed Christians with a strong doctrine of Creation. From the Bible’s very first pages, Genesis depicts the human creature as intimately and organically connected with all other life on Earth. The human person is meant to live through a proper relation to the rest of Creation, just as the mind and body are meant to be whole for there to be health. Further scientific study and theological reflection on the role of psychedelics in human health are sure to come. But this may just be another hint of a deep reformational insight: everything is interconnected.

Author

  • Mike Wagenman

    Mike is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he is also a professor of theology and culture. He is the author of Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper (2019).

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