Integration: The Upside of Coming Down – Part Two: Debriefing, Disrupting & Dark Journeys

Harvey Schwartz, Ph.D.

Objectives for Integration

A broad consensus now exists: effective integration is where the therapeutic action is. Otherwise, these openings, insights, and transmissions become nothing more than fascinating experiences that happened once, long ago. Or, worse, unmetabolized mystical experience can become fuel for extreme personality traits such as grandiosity or self-negation.

Here is a checklist of typical objectives:

  • Smoothing the return to ordinary life
  • Reflecting on original intentions
  • Debriefing the particularly disturbing, overwhelming, and/or transcendent experiences
  • Giving feedback to therapists (and sitters)
  • Cautioning against making major life changes or decisions immediately following psychedelic experiences
  • Preparing for both the internal and interpersonal challenges that might emerge in the days and weeks following these intense experiences
  • Witnessing, reviewing and recording– writing, drawing, recording: images, feelings, body sensations, encounters, perceptions, insights and revelations
  • Safety and self-care information and recommendations
  • Regression/relapse prevention
  • Meaning making
  • Sustaining spaciousness of mind
  • Avoiding “spiritual bypass” (i.e., the tendency to use generalized spiritual practices to sidestep specific unresolved emotional conflicts, psychological wounds and/or unfinished developmental tasks)

Debriefing as the Initial Phase of Integration

Debriefing can be considered one way to help maintain a communication flow between conscious and unconscious states of mind. Debriefing with a trusted person (e.g., therapist, partner, friend, sitter) should take place immediately after the journey, and then again, if possible, within 24 hours.  The patient/journeyer may be encouraged to provide a full account of his/her altered state experience in as much detail as possible. This inquiry might include reflection on the initial intentions as well as on the overall significance of the experience in words and/or in art.  Debriefing can include an open-ended inquiry about the medicine session, with an invitation to consider any change in views of self, symptoms, relationships, values, and/or spirituality that may have emerged. For some individuals, this inquiry might include reflection on the initial intentions as well as the overall significance of the experience.  Dreams after the medicine session can be viewed as important post-journey altered state experiences themselves, and therapeutic dreamwork may be viewed as one important way to help maintain a flow of communication between conscious and unconscious experience. For some individuals, thorough debriefing may feel intrusive and premature, and members of that subgroup may prefer a longer incubation period prior to communication and representation.

Describing any persisting positive or negative effects during debriefing is also essential to track potential areas requiring more sustained attention in future integration sessions. In more structured therapeutic settings, debriefing may involve linking insights and perspective shifts obtained in the altered states with identified areas of desired psychological change.  This may include: new understanding of symptoms such as any specific changes in symptoms or how they are experienced; new insights and intentions around management of symptoms; and, any spontaneous or practiced behavior changes made in order to better manage symptoms (Bogenschutz and Forcehimes, 2017). In less formal psychotherapeutic settings, debriefings may simply be a way of ensuring safety and remembering the journey for later processing.

Benevolent Disruption

The disruption of one’s “ordinary mind” worldview is what makes these chemicals powerful catalysts for transformation. Expansive altered state experiences by their very nature disrupt and disorganize in advance of the integration phase’s potential to review and reconfigure. Effective integration protects this process and sequence from unintentional interruption, neglect or premature foreclosure.

Studies show that psychedelic experiences are reported to be a major life event – up there with the birth of a child or death of parent. Academic researchers and clinicians have reported this significance still holds true even decades after a single stand-alone psychedelic journey. Those who did report their experiences as significantly “spiritual,” often ranked the significance of the event higher (with a more enduring benefit) compared to others in the study cohort. 

Some people have remained confused or anxious long after their altered state experiences have ended. Some journeyers have difficultly processing their conflicting thoughts and feelings that psychedelic experiences often bring to the surface. The prevailing philosophy promoting integration is that only by delving into these mixed feelings (with appropriate empathic witnessing and thoughtful dialogue) can the therapeutic potential of altered states be realized.

Without thorough and effective integration, the journey’s insights and revelations are likely to fade away as “ordinary” life nudges us back into our old habits, identifications, and beliefs.

For those who pursue recurring journey experiences hoping to expedite or accelerate their development, they risk rushing past the most essential vehicle of transformation: the integration phase.

The Challenging “Trip”

There is a counterintuitive aphorism that guides most knowledgeable psychonauts: “there are no bad trips only challenging trips.” Myron Stolaroff (1997) and others have pointed out that the most valuable journeys are often the ones that take us into our own shadow and unmetabolized traumas and conflicts. Exceptional post-session integration sensitivity is required by challenging journeys that involve profound grief, existential anxiety, terror, paranoia, disturbing interdimensional and previous lifetime imagery or apocalyptic visions. Sometimes, intense or prolonged negative emotions may have been initiated, ranging from anxiety to depression and despair, even psychosis.

For some of these individuals, there is a question of capacity and readiness: are they psychologically or spiritually mature enough to confront and integrate what they have experienced? Sometimes a challenging journey’s integration uncovers the need for foundational psychological work to create a sturdier psychological “structure,” or a more flexible sense of self, to support a deeper and more through integration later on (Strassman, 2008). In a minority of cases, almost always outside of closely monitored research and clinical settings, some challenging experiences may lead to spiritual or “psychiatric emergencies.”

Psychiatric emergencies can range from a transient (brief reactive) psychotic episodes to the onset of a bipolar condition. Spiritual emergencies, or psychospiritual crises, can result from the challenges of metabolizing mystical revelations and reactivated traumas. These crises can threaten individuals’ identities, especially concerning spiritual or existential frameworks. These “emergencies” may lead to periods of deep confusion, despair, manic flight, messianic impulses, or the urge to seek out new religious orthodoxies. Unfortunately, mainstream mental health practitioners do not differentiate psychospiritual crises (or mystical experiences) from psychiatric pathologies.

The misrecognition of these emergencies may send an individual in crisis into a counterproductive intervention, or into an unnecessarily protracted stint with the institutional mental health system. Stan and Christina Grof (1989) pioneered a clinical understanding of spiritual emergencies, and they viewed the condition as a hard-to-define problem with unexpected opportunities. Psychospiritual emergencies should  be thoughtfully considered by clinicians familiar with altered states of consciousness (along with mystical experiences and shamanic traditions) to maximize opportunities for individuals to not only recover from crisis mode, but to use the emergency to a reach a higher level of psychological functioning, along with spiritual maturation.

High quality integration helps translate and contextualize difficult emotional and transpersonal experiences into useful, meaningful narratives. Fears and aversions precipitated by the journey can be replaced by hopeful inquiry. Isolation and fragmentation can be replaced by dialogue and coherence.  Reactive nihilism or alienation can be replaced by a sense of maturation and connection to a community of fellow travelers, fellow consciousness explorers. Without proper integration, difficult psychedelic experiences may be incorrectly “misfiled” as: irrelevant, psychotic, shameful, evidence of personal defectiveness, or the fault of the medicine/sitters/therapists.

The Hidden Danger of Benign Neglect

Although the integration process requires gentleness and patience, there is always a danger of being “too nice.”  The misstep of benign neglect is not easy to notice.  Even after relatively blissful or trauma-free sessions, individuals still face the daunting task of what to do with their unexpected insights (Strassman, 2008). In general, it’s best when people do not chase the altered state experience, dismiss it, disparage it or idealize it. Effective integration serves to forestall the excess of these four potentials.

Widening The Integration Circle

In the immediate aftermath of a journey, one is especially sensitive to censure, rejection, negation and misunderstanding. It is important to be discerning about with whom we share, and what to share – especially with the sharing of the more extraordinary details. One approach is to thoughtfully safeguard the integration process by sharing of our experiences only with highly trusted others, particularly those who are experienced with altered states and non-ordinary reality – or those who are sincerely open-minded about it.

References

Bogenschutz, M.P. and Forcehimes, A.A. (2017). Development of a Psychotherapeutic Model for Psilocybin- Assisted Treatment of Alcoholism. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 57(4), 389-414.

Grof, S. & Grof, C. (1989). Spiritual Emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. Tarcher/Perigee: New York.

Richards, W (2017). Psychedelic Psychotherapy: Insights from 25 Years of Research.  Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 57(4) pp.  323-337.

Stoloroff, M. (1997). The Secret Chief: Conversations with a pioneer of the underground psychedelic therapy movement. MAPS: Santa Cruz, CA.

Strassman, R. (2008). Preparation for the Journey. In Strassman, R., Wojtowicz, S., Luna, L.E., & Fresca, E. (Eds.) Inner Paths to Outer Space, pp. 268-298.