What Psychedelics Teach Us About Love in Psychotherapy
And the importance of love in healing from trauma
Posted April 5, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- Therapists can help patients by exemplifying unconditional love and acceptance during psychotherapy.
- While effective, this can be challenging, especially for those with treatment-resistant PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder and eating disorders.
- Psychedelics may facilitate psychotherapy by enabling patients to spontaneously feel unconditional love and acceptance.
'Feelings of love' are among the most common experiences people report after taking psychedelics- whether LSD, mushrooms, or MDMA. And now that such substances are gaining more and more attention within clinical psychology, a natural question arises; can psychedelics teach us anything about love in psychotherapy?
Love as a mode of healing was first popularized by prominent psychologist, Carl Rogers. In 1956, he theorized that children who do not receive sufficient love from their parents are more likely to have low self-worth and low self-esteem as adults. This, in turn, prevents them from reaching their full potential.
One of the key purposes of psychotherapy, according to Rogers, is thus for therapists to exemplify the unconditional, non-judgmental love and acceptance patients would have ideally received from adult caregivers when they were children. In doing so, he proposed that therapists enable patients to build the secure foundations from which they can develop healthy levels of self-worth and self-esteem and ultimately become who they could have always been.
While such therapeutic love is a key component of the patient-therapist relationship, demonstrating it properly without being misconstrued can be difficult. This is especially true when dealing with more complex mental health issues that involve high degrees of trauma and rigidity- such as treatment-resistant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), treatment-resistant Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), and eating disorders.
How Psychedelics Help Us Experience Love
It is for these cases in particular that new treatment methods are needed. One method that so far has shown some potential for difficult-to-treat mental health disorders is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Here, patients are aided through the psychotherapeutic process with psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA, or psilocybin.
"It sounds so cliche, but psychedelics evoke such beautiful embodied experiences that make it absolutely undeniable that love is real, powerful, and healing." explained Dr. Adele Lafrance, psychologist, and co-developer of Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (EFFT), in a recent discussion with Psychology Today.
"It's like psychedelics bring down the barriers- the fears- related to love. They tone down the shame related to expressions of love, so that we can reconnect to the parts of us that were born to love."
Some in the field say that under careful clinical supervision and via a series of chemical events, psychedelics may be able to connect patients with their therapist and remove barriers to being able to access, understand and process painful memories and emotions. It is this experience of being able to confront one's past and fears that users of psychedelics describe as 'love'.
How Love from Psychedelics Heals
And this experience of love seems to be similar to that described by Rogers. In a recent conversation with Psychology Today, Dr. Joe Tafur MD, an integrative family physician, curandero, and author of 'The Fellowship of the River' said that through his work with ayahuasca, he has come to recognize love as "the acceptance of all things as they are without reservation".
He continued to say that experiencing love in this way is especially healing for those suffering from mental health conditions like PTSD. Such conditions, he said, are caused by traumatic experiences, whether heartbreak, abuse, or else, that block one's ability to love and care for themself or others for fear of being hurt once more. And this inability to love quickly becomes a vicious downward spiral; the less one loves, the harder it is to love.
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As psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy may be able 'to unblock one's capacity to love', it is possible to see how they may be able to help address some cases of trauma. Recent clinical trials have shown that psychedelics may be able to outperform traditional therapies such as regular talk therapy and antidepressants when addressing treatment-resistant PTSD. It is worth noting however, that research is relatively limited on how they work, as well as their long-term side effects.
While psychedelics are, of course, no silver bullet for treating mental health conditions, it seems that, under the right circumstances, and with appropriate care, they may be able to help some overcome pain and trauma. And it seems that one of the main ways they may do this is by providing patients with a glimpse of who they are behind the barriers of love.