Yes Ayahuasca can change you psychologically and hence behaviorally and is particularly beneficial for anxiety and depression of all kinds. There are also some pitfalls and precautions to avoid and implement in order to ensure a successful Ayahuasca ceremony and experience.
Table of contents:
- How does Ayahuasca affect the brain?
- What do you gain from drinking Ayahuasca?
- Can Ayahuasca cause permanent damage?
- Depression after Ayahuasca
- How should people consume Ayahuasca? (ayahuasca ceremony)
TIP: Read the full Ayahuasca preparation guide to see how to drink safely and effectively.
How does Ayahuasca affect the brain?
Ayahuasca Tea (the concoction you would drink in an Ayahuasca ceremony) contains a psychedelic agent called DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) in small doses. DMT, once you have drunk it, passes from the your stomach to your blood stream. It then travels to your brain once it has crossed what is known as the ‘blood brain barrier’.
Once in the brain it attaches on a chemical level to your Serotonin Receptors and elicits a psychedelics experience. Chemically speaking DMT is similar to Serotonin and your body already knows what to do with it. Once it has reached the Serotonin receptors we can look to the research of Robin Carhart-Harris to understand, from a neuroscience point of view, to allow us to understand what might be happening.
TIP: Your body actually produces DMT naturally without even drinking Ayahuasca and DMT has been found in the lungs and the liver. It is also thought to be produced in the brain of humans. It has been found in the brains of mice in experimental conditions so one might assume that it is also possible it can be found in our own brains.
Robin’s research, I’ll link to a summary of below from the man himself, says that under the influence of psychedelics the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) is reduced in activity and new connections are made (ie Neurogenesis) between areas of the brain which do not normally have connects or communicate.
Robin suggests that the DMN is where your Ego ‘lives’ and is thought to be the network in the brain which holds your sense of self identity but also your ability to navigate the world, be productive and do day to day tasks which require your conscious attention like work or other skill sets.
This, I believe, is a neuron science paradigm to understand what is often called ego dissolution or ego death. I suspect that under the influence of psychedelics your normal patterns of thinking and behavior (ie depressive and anxious neural pathways) are reduced in strength as your DMN is reduced in activity while at the same time your sense of self is reduced in its strength and you can experience the other parts of your psyche and reality without its influence. This makes sense if these things are all contained in the DMN and this is reduced in its activity.
It’s this state of of reduced activity in the DMN which you are in when you are in an Ayahuasca ceremony. It’s at this time you can have visionary type experiences, ego death, experience healing, love and other benefits that are associated with a ceremonial psychedelic trip.
Here is a TED Talk by Robin Carhart-Harris which outlines his findings.
What are the psychological effects of Ayahuasca in your life?
I would say that the psychological effect of Ayahuasca is that you experience Ego Dissolution or (temporary) Ego Death in more extreme doses and experiences. Another way to say this is that Ayahuasca allows you to experience reality without the impact of your Ego and allows you to experience something else.
A quote from a previous article I wrote, allows us to understand this from yet another angle,
“The ego is the part of your psyche which is responsible for dealing with reality, but in doing so it must mitigate the wants and desires of other parts of our psyche, making its job difficult. It also allows us to identify with, groups, skills we might have, possessions we own, and generally identify in general… I think it’s important to understand what the ego is as Ayahuasca and other psychedelics make you aware of the boundaries of your Ego.”All fund and game til someone loses an I
You see the thing is that your Ego is the state of mind that you are in 99.99% of the time while awake and hence it is difficult to know that there are other states of mind and that there are different experiences and learnings that we can take from these other states if we are able to access them.
Those new experiences and learnings could be the cure of depression and anxiety or emotional trauma. Anything that has become engrained as a way of thinking or pattern of behavior in your Ego.
TIP: From a Freudian understanding of your psyche you have an ‘Ego’ or an ‘Id’ as well as other parts of your psyche which do various different things. I wrote more about this in another article here which talks in detail about your Ego, The Id and Super Ego as different parts of your psyche from a Freudian point of view (although 99.99% of waking life you are not aware of the later two).
What do you gain from drinking Ayahuasca?
You can gain cure and solutions to negative patterns of thinking and behavior. Curing of alcoholism and other addictive behaviors. You can gain spiritual advancement and experience love.
Negative patterns and behaviors stop us, I think, from experiencing love and can hold us in a place of anxiety and depression or pain. These patterns become engrained as neural pathways in our Ego (as Freud defines it). These pathways are difficult to re-program and avoid. Like water flowing down hill takes the path of least resistance our Ego takes the easiest neural pathway and sometime that is a very negative one caused by trauma throughout our lives.
I think that the purpose of Ayahuasca is to gain an alternative set of neural pathways and begin to create new paths for your Ego to follow. Ones which are not based in trauma but in fact based in love.
The neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris has described how new neural connections are created while under the influence of the psychedelics and I think its these new connections which are created here which can be reinforced and made into literal new ways of thinking. See the YouTube video above for Robin’s findings in his own words.
TIP: The Integration that people talk about in Ayahuasca communities is effectively a process of reinforcing these new neural pathways so that they are strengthened and made strong enough that they become the dominant pathway instead of the previous ‘faulty ones’.
Can Ayahuasca cause permanent damage?
Under certain circumstances Ayahuasca can cause permanent damage. These circumstances are relatively easy to avoid for most people and I have explained in detail how to prepare yourself in order to avoid these by following the Ayahuasca Dieta in another article but I will briefly run through these again.
Ayahuasca can cause permanent damage,
- if you drink Ayahuasca Tea while you are taking (or it’s still in your system) certain pharmaceuticals you can cause Serotonin Syndrome which can either be very bad or in the worst cases deadly.
- Commonly pharmaceuticals which contraindicate (do not mix safely) are those used for depression (like SSRI’s) and altitude sickness but are not limited to these. You can read more about which pharmaceuticals to avoid in this article I wrote however this is not a complete list and in reality if you have questions about which medications you are taking and their ability to be taken safely with Ayahuasca you should consult your doctor.
- In addition if you drink Ayahuasca and also have a history of psychosis (eg Bi-polar or schizophrenia but is not limited to these) either personally or in your immediate family then it is possible that Ayahuasca can worsen these conditions and cause a psychological break. These people should be very cautious about drinking Ayahuasca or taking any other psychedelics. Best practice advice seems to be avoid psychedelics completely if these apply to you however in some cases this could be voided for certain people but those cases are very rare and require a lot of support and care in case the person does become worse.
Is Ayahuasca a drug or a medicine?
Ayahuasca could be considered a drug however, without the negative connotation. I think that in this case it is more accurate to call it a medicine. A medicine helps and a drug is associated with addiction and bad behavior.
While Ayahuasca and other psychedelics are illegal this is more because the legality of them is a key way that governments can retain control over the masses as opposed to them being addictive or dangerous. I say this knowing that they can be taken in circumstances which are indeed dangerous but actually these dangers are relatively easy to avoid if you are well prepared.
Depression after Ayahuasca
Some people have found that their depression has come on after Ayahuasca although this seems to be in the minority of experiences compared to those who are helped with their depression. It might be useful to go over a few examples of people talking about their depressive experiences post Ayahuasca.
One user described how she felt depressed after her experiences because her reality post Ayahuasca seemed ‘shameful’ and ‘disgusting’ (in her own words) as she felt she had mistreated her body and was not conscious of her body previous to Ayahuasca.
My impression of this description is that the insights Ayahuasca gives you are sometimes so that you can use them as a catalyst for change in your life. I think that the feelings she had after Ayahuasca were or should be understood as a catalyst to change and start to take care of herself consciously.
Ayahuasca is not necessarily all love and light. She is loving but is also very practical and sometimes blunt. These kinds of insight or realization don’t surprise me and I would class this is a useful experience if seen correctly as a catalyst.
This insight is the beginning of integration where we learn to take the things we learn from ceremony and make behavioral changes to implement in day to day life. Day to day life is an extension of our ceremonies where we practice what we preach or what we learned more accurately said.
Another example I saw was not so obviously a catalyst but could still be considered so albeit a more extreme example. This user seems to have had a psychotic break after using psychedelics. The user says himself that he was not in a great place for Ayahuasca and did not prepare well enough for it. It’s also possible that an undiagnosed psychosis existed and this user did too much Ayahuasca for someone vulnerable to psychosis. We discussed this as a particular danger to watch out for above.
It is well known to those who have done their research that those with a history of or even in their immediate family should either not take Ayahuasca or other psychedelics for fear that this can trigger a psychotic break or at the every least do so with a significant amount of support afterward from people who can look after you and help your through the break.
Is Ayahuasca safe for depression?
Yes Ayahuasca is usually safe with depressive people (and in fact can cure or help very much with depression) assuming you have followed a dieta and don’t have a history of psychosis as discussed above. Importantly, you should not be taking any anti-depression medication and have taken time to clear it from your system before drinking Ayahuasca.
This is because it can be dangerous to combine both Ayahuasca (specifically the MAOI’s within it) with these medications. They both act upon the Serotonin Receptors and can hence lead to Serotonin Syndrome.
Assuming you have prepared well for it, Ayahuasca can help you to have perspective on your depression and create via Neurogenesis different neural pathways that offer a new way of thinking to your old depressive and negative spirals of thinking.
What effects does Ayahuasca have on anxiety?
Ayahuasca can be very good for anxiety. In my own personal experiences I have written about how Ayahuasca cured my anxiety for a period of weeks or months and later (5 years on and still present) gave me a method to ‘step out’ of my anxiety in some circumstances.
This later aspect is very important and in its best form allows me to no longer feel as if there is no way out of my anxiety. I understand a process for extracting myself from it now and don’t let it spiral to a very bad degree. It also allows me to be in the moment to pull myself out of my anxiety.
I should note though that the anxiety doesn’t leave you. You still have it but you have now ways of dealing with it and actually you are no longer ‘IN’ the anxiety but instead it’s standing next to you and you view it from a greater distance. In this way while you still have it it never feels as bad as it used to even though in reality it may even be higher than before in an absolute sense.
One analogy I like is that it’s like watching a storm from afar knowing that it is chaotic in the exact point where the storm is but you being up on a hill are less effected because you are far from it. Your anxiety in raging down in the valley and you are on a mountain looking at it. You can feel the wind is stronger where you are from the storm but its not battering you around, pouring rain on your head and sending scary lightning down to you.
Ayahuasca and substance abuse change
Ayahuasca itself is not considered addictive but I have heard of people going back to Ayahuasca again and again. My feeling on this is that I suspect either they perhaps have not taken the process of preparation seriously, have not made practical changes to their lives (ie integration) after the ceremonies and perhaps even have not had a strong enough Ayahuasca brew.
Ayahuasca is not a magical drink that fixes everything but some people treat it as such. Done in this way it could become a useful crutch that people go to do every 6 months or so to get the somewhat temporary (weeks and months) effects of it as an anti-depressant and then go back to their lives having not changed anything. 6 months later they find their problems still there and they decide to go back and do it again.
Ayahuasca and the “Modern Western Paradigm” (mental health services)
Ayahuasca as a set of experiences and even a world view do not fit in with a modern western paradigm of materialism where people only believe in what you can see, feel or measure with a scientific instrument. As such, some of the experiences you have on Ayahuasca cannot be understood by some people and professionals who work in the psychological field.
If you are seeking psychological help and plan on or have already taken Ayahuasca or other psychedelics then you should try to find a mental health professional who has experience with Ayahuasca or other psychedelics.
These professionals in psychedelic integration will be more open to your experiences and will be less inclined to medicate you. I do not think that western medications are, on the whole, good for you given there are lifestyle and herbal remedies if you look hard enough (ie Ayurveda as a medical system and lifestyle).
How should people consume Ayahuasca? (Ayahuasca ceremony)
Traditionally Ayahuasca is consumed in a ceremonial ritual a la the Shipibo Tradition of the Amazon Basin (Peru). The traditions around the ceremony offer a structure to do it effectively and safely.
A ceremony(s) is preceded by a dieta which excludes certain foods, drinks and pharmaceuticals from your system in order to drink it safely and with effect.
Intentions are created to guide you internally and mentally while you are in your ceremony. Ceremonies are quite personal and internal even though you are in a group setting. Its mostly you in the dark having your own visionary psychedelic experience.
After you ceremony you take a day off and drink again the day after to give you a break. You rinse and repeat for lets say 3 ceremonies but could be more. In your ceremonies you are healing physically or mentally and following your intentions. The shaman guide the ceremonies with singing which ushers in the interactions with Madre de Ayahuasca who provides the healing.
In my experiences the ego dissolution provided by the Ayahuasca Tea during ceremony leads to psychological healing and from a western paradigm the ability to create new neural connections (Neurogenesis) which can be focussed around your intentions to basically reprogram (!) your mind or parts of it with love and healing.
TIP: Integration and practical changes in your life are needed to reinforce these new neural pathways. Ayahuasca is not a magical cure over the long term.
This is a traditional Shipibo method of drinking Ayahuasca but other cultures in the Amazon basin may do it differently. The point is there is a ceremonial procedure which allows you to structure the experiences optimally.
Drinking Ayahuasca by yourself
It’s also possible to drink Ayahuasca by yourself if you can either brew your own or purchase some legally in your country.
I would suggest following the Shipibo tradition above to structure your ceremonies so as you can drink safely and effectively although if it is your first time I suggest you try to find an experienced retreat to show you the best practice.