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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Exploring Consciousness: What Are Entheogens?

There are new therapeutic interventions for healing from pain and PTSD.

Wirestock / Envato
Source: Wirestock / Envato

Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1.

Integrative medicine treatment of post-traumatic stress has been evolving and growing worldwide to include entheogens, also called psychedelic medicine. Human beings have been exploring and altering consciousness since the first four-legged animals snuffled their way into a mound of mushrooms and shared their discovery with their two-legged companions.

It is difficult to say which is older, the experience of trauma or that of the first vision leading to what we now call spirituality or religion. Some believe the latter may have dawned on the earliest hominids after ingesting some of nature’s psychedelic bounty. Some scholars suggest that the apple of Eden was a psychoactive mushroom (Amanita muscaria) (Wasson et al., 1988). People have ingested psychoactive plants and mushrooms for millennia to enhance consciousness and as a route to ecstasy, which refers to “the withdrawal of the soul from the body” concurrent with mystical or visionary states.

Frequently, people of many cultures use plants and mushrooms in group rituals to alter consciousness, commune with the gods, or stay alert while engaged in long expeditions. Alternatively, they may use such substances individually to stimulate vision quests, sleep, or treat pain and wounds.

Entheogen refers to “god/goddess within.” Those plant substances that, when ingested, engender an experience of the divine. Entheogens are also called psychedelics, a term psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond coined from the root words psyche (mind) and delos (manifest). During the 1950s and 60s, they were called hallucinogens and psychotomimetics (Wasson et al., 1988).

Some pharmaceuticals derive from these plants, with chemical compounds extracted, synthesized, and concentrated in laboratories. People use psychoactive plants and mushrooms recreationally, ritually, and in microdoses. There is a renaissance of research on the role of psychedelics in treating the intractable symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including depression, hopelessness, anxiety, and “loss of spirit.”

Altering States of Consciousness

Trauma alters consciousness, and it is no surprise that upwards of 70 percent of people with PTSD self-medicate to the point of addiction at some point in their lives. Many more use substances but do not become addicted. Substance use intersects both the natural human urge for inner exploration and the need to suppress unpleasant states.

Plants and mushrooms and their chemical derivatives are the subjects of general empirical science, indigenous sciences, and biomedical clinical trials aimed at identifying their application for the treatment of PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction, and insomnia and as a catalyst for spiritual and post-traumatic growth. It is at this intersection that a therapeutic approach to understanding psychoactive states and balances can be explored.

Entheogens and Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy

Entheogen and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy integrate talk therapy with a psychedelic experience. It most often involves preparation of the drug experience followed by individual or group process and debriefing in a therapeutic context. Treatment may be individual or group-based. Psycholytic psychotherapy integrates low-dose hallucinogens with psychoanalysis to activate and process memories and emotions. Psychedelics alter the chemical transmission and normal function in the nervous system, leading to altered states and often transcendent or mystical experiences.

These “psychointegrators” enhance the processing of fundamental information regarding self, emotions, social relations, and attachment behaviors and facilitate this integration in the brain (Winkelman, 2021b). All these substances act on receptors and neurotransmitters that influence mood, anxiety, sensory processing, and memory (Montagne, 2007). They alter functional connectivity and have the potential to change the neural connections that keep people in chronic pain states (Castellanos et al., 2020).


Wasson, R. G., Kramrisch, S., Ruck, C., & Ott, J. (1988). Persephone’s quest: Entheogens and the origins of religion. Yale University Press.

Winkelman, M. J. (2021b). The evolved psychology of psychedelic set and setting: Inferences regarding the roles of shamanism and entheogenic ecopsychology. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 12, 619890.

Montagne, M. (2007). Psychedelic therapy for the treatment of depression. In M. J. Winkelman & T. B. Roberts (Eds.), Psychedelic medicine: New evidence for hallucinogenic substances as medicine (Vol. 1, pp. 177–190). Praeger.

Castellanos, J. P., Woolley, C., Bruno, K. A., Zeidan, F., Halberstadt, A., & Furnish, T. (2020). Chronic pain and psychedelics: A review and proposed mechanism of action. Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine, 45(7), 486–494.

More from Leslie E. Korn Ph.D., MPH, LMHC, ACS, FNTP
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