Everyone knows the excitement of the honeymoon phase, but relationships really begin when that period ends. Couples are using psychedelics to connect (and reconnect) with one another–to communicate better and remind themselves why they entered the relationship in the first place. As it turns out, the lessons they’re learning are applicable to other aspects of mental health and relationships more broadly.
Psychedelics in Couple’s Therapy
This week, Vice published an article about a couple that uses mushrooms therapeutically for the sake of their relationship. Though not under the supervision of a therapist, they don’t believe their use to be “recreational.” As we wrote an article this week that examined this “bad word,” we found that this case presented an interesting argument for responsible recreational use.
The couple set aside time away from their daily rigamarole of work in order to be with each other in a special, heightened way. In doing so, they created their own kind of ceremony with an environment and intentions that facilitated the therapeutic experience. Beyond that, the article touched upon an important theme in psychedelics–the role that our emotions play in our relationships.
The Honeymoon Phase
In the 70s and 80s, MDMA showed particular success within the context of couple’s therapy. Similarly to magic mushrooms, MDMA appears to help people process emotional content and connect with themselves, others, and the greater unknown. MDMA’s chemical expression mimics what happens in the brain when we’re in the honeymoon phase with the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Given the current anecdotal evidence, psychedelic couple’s therapy predominantly seems to be based on the emotional healing that occurs between partners.
A recent study found that patients treated with psilocybin saw improvements in their romantic relationships six months after the initial dose. Individually, they found relief from depression due to the changes they experienced in “how they connected with others and how they processed their emotions.”
The lead doctor went on to say, “one of the two key themes was that of going from disconnection to connection with others and the world around them. The other was about going from avoiding emotion, to accepting it.” One of the byproducts of getting in touch with ourselves is that we can engage with others more authentically in the moment. This helps us actually see the person with whom we are in a relationship.
PTSD is indicative of such disconnection. What makes psychedelic therapy effective in these cases is that a person with PTSD relives the traumatic experiences while staying connected to their emotional experience. Some define trauma as a disconnection from the self.
Being disconnected will get anyone in trouble. Simply look at the current mental health and political crisis in the United States. Regardless of how traumatic one’s experience may be, we do not live in a culture that values empathy. We could say this is a cultural phenomenon in the United States, or by proxy, “modern culture”; or we can extend it to include patriarchal societies. In any case, we stigmatize feelings and mental health issues. And we’re not quite seeing how big of a role feelings play into our health.
Feelings are believed to be the foundation of consciousness. We need to take them seriously. In cognitive science, emotions, or feelings have been long treated as a category separate from cognitive states. American neurologist Joseph Ledoux observed the opposite. “The brain mechanisms that give rise to conscious emotional feelings are not fundamentally different from those that give rise to perceptual conscious experiences,” Ledoux says.
Honeymoon Phase on Campus
An article in Time examined the astronomical rise of depression among college students and how colleges are unequipped to provide adequate support. The magnitude of the problem is staggering. “In the spring of 2017, nearly 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed within the past 12 months that it was difficult for them to function, and 61% of students said that they had ‘felt overwhelming anxiety’ within the same period.” Furthermore, the average university has one professional counselor for every 1,737 students. These statistics came from a study organized by the American College Health Association that included 63,000 students at 92 schools.
What researchers noted was that “problems emerge near the middle of the semester, when the honeymoon period of a new school wears off and midterms begin.” Though not romantic in nature, the parallel to relationships is clear. When the period of newness ends, we quickly become disenchanted.
The Culture of the New
Humans are good at beginnings. A fresh new start. A new attitude. How Stella Got Her Groove Back. When the situation moves out of the novel phase and “gets real,” then it’s “back to reality / oops there goes gravity,” as Eminem said. We run into problems when things start to change. We know, as a culture, how to make new things, how to buy new things, and how to discard old things, because we’re going to get the newer version of it. Ours is a culture without a healthy relationship with age and history.
Once the new period is over, which we often see in relationships and in the case of college students, then we run into emotional difficulty. That’s normal. We’re supposed to feel things when they change. We evolve. Yet we don’t seem to be doing that well.
Getting Over the Honeymoon
Thus in evaluating the disconnect between the honeymoon period and the next phase we seem to simply give up or try really really hard to work through it. That usually involves disconnecting from our partners in the fear of being vulnerable. We’re rendered emotionally impotent when we venture into areas that we cannot name with the sweet, dreamy images of honey and the moon. We stop communicating our feelings.
There is very little opportunity for intimacy in daily life. Most of our social discourse, according to transactional analyst Eric Berne, is actually structured to avoid it. Where does one go in a society that does not value candidness?
The Stigma Around Our Feelings
It’s not only the numbers. Students are also “slipping through the cracks” due to a “stubborn stigma associated with mental health issues.” The stigma appears to be much deeper than just “mental health,” which seems to provide a language coaxed in this obsession we have with the mind. By digging deeper, we are directed to the subject of our feelings.
Psychedelic therapy, as the Vice article mentioned, seems to help people process their emotions and connect with the experience of them rather than disconnect from them. This form of therapy appears to have a positive impact on their relationships. How we act in relationships is a reflection of our internal self-worth and critique. By recognizing this, we can get to the source of mental health issues. Some doctors, such as Dr. Joe Tafur, believe that the root is emotional trauma or unprocessed emotional content that is dysfunctional in nature.
Ayahuasca and A General Theory of Love
Dr. Joe Tafur is a Western family physician and author of The Fellow of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine. The book covers his experience working with ayahuasca in the Amazon. Tafur observed that ayahuasca treated a variety of conditions that in Western medical practice would not be seen as related to one another. From PTSD and depression to chronic pain and inflammation, people found relief after this treatment (which also involved an extensive plant diet). Logically, Dr. Tafur tried to find a physiological link between all these ailments. Why was ayahuasca able to treat all of these so effectively?
Healing the Emotional Body: The Limbic System
In his book, Dr. Tafur comes across another book that helped him in his pursuit to understand. A General Theory of Love was written by three members of the Faculty at the University of California San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry. In it, they describe the process of “limbic healing/emotional healing in modern mental health care.” They note that the limbic system that processes our emotional experience.
“You might say,” says Tafur, “that it is the place where the heart communicates with the mind.”
The limbic system processes our emotional content and involves our social and emotional connection to others, our attachment to loved ones, and even our sexuality. Our earliest relationships shape it. What Tafur found was that emotional trauma during childhood and adolescence (and in some cases, later on) disturbed the limbic system, which in turn caused dysfunction throughout the system. A subconscious limbic imprint could manifest as someone who has been through an abusive childhood seeking similar dynamics in their adult life, for example. For this individual, it may “be more emotionally painful to leave an abusive relationship than stay in one.”
The Role of Emotions in our Mental Health
More and more we’re understanding the role that our emotions play in the health of the overall organism. Psychedelics appear to affect the deep emotional imprint that lies at the root of consciousness, which has implications for the individual and, by extension, their relationships. Learning how to communicate these experiences as strengths and as a means of connecting with one another is healing. The overarching idea addresses the difficulty we have in moving past the “new” feelings. There is no quick fix to this situation. In the end, we cannot avoid our feelings and function properly.
Psychedelic therapy shows immense promise in giving us a space to evaluate how we, individually and as a whole, struggle with feelings that get “old.” We are renewed. Hopefully, we will learn how to appreciate a thing that ages like wine and that becomes more subtle, complex, and flavorful because of it.