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How Does Love Work in Therapy?

A roundtable discussion with mental health researchers and practitioners.

Key points

  • Fear prevents people from being able to love and connect with themselves and others.
  • Fear of love leads to a lack of self love and love towards others, which can negatively impact health.
  • For many, the pandemic made clear the importance of the oneness and the interconnectedness of us all. 
Thich Nhat Hanh, used with permission
Source: Thich Nhat Hanh, used with permission

This is the first article in a two-part series about how love works in psychotherapy and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. You can find the second article here.

Proper expression of ‘love’ is thought to be one of the primary ways in which psychotherapy, and psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, treat mental illness. One could thus say that a lack of love- be it in childhood or as an adult- may be a major cause behind the increasing rates of mental illness around the world.

I recently put some questions around this topic to an esteemed panel of researchers and practitioners within the psychedelic and mental health space. They included Mary Cosimano, clinical researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research; Dr Adele Lafrance, psychologist, psychedelics researcher and co-developer of emotion-focused treatment modalities; Dr Anne Wagner, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist, founder of Remedy and treatment development researcher and Katalin Kálmán, a trauma and integration therapist at mental health company, Numinus.

To begin, we discussed the role of love in society. It was generally agreed that fear plays a primary role in preventing people from being able to love and connect fully with themselves and others. This fear, or mistrust, of love then generates a lack of self love and love towards others, which in turn can spiral into disease, including mental health disorders, and unhealthy public discourse.

In light of increasing awareness around mental health and the recent boom in psychedelic research, it was agreed that now is a pivotal moment for love as a powerful healing modality, both in conversation and in practice.

Below is a condensed version of the discussion that took place:

Do the vast majority of problems in society come from a ‘block’ in expressing and feeling love?

Dr Adele Lafrance: In my work with eating disorders and other serious mental health issues, one of the commonalities that I see across those suffering is a fear of love- a mistrust of love or blocks to being able to feel other’s love, or love for themselves. It is something that can be quite delicate in people who have been hurt. And especially if they've been hurt by people they loved.

Mary Cosimano: I believe there are only two emotions: love and fear. Anything that is not love is fear, whether it be anger, hate or frustration- it's all fear of something. These fears, however they manifest in our life are the blocks that I believe you're talking about.

I 100% agree with the statement – love is often blocked. We are born as love and over time we tend to experience blocks that obscure that love. These blocks manifest in ways that cause problems in our lives and society. In order to heal these problems, we need to get back to that state of love. Psychedelics have the potential to assist with that.

How does fear stop us from being able to express love?

Dr Anne Wagner: When we're acting from fear, or we're operating in a state where fear is at the forefront, it can be really difficult to feel or express love. We may know it's there. We may understand what’s happening but nevertheless, we struggle to act in a loving way either to ourselves or other people because the fear is dominating.

We might think of that when we look at our global experience right now or in the past. Fear often dominates our rhetoric. It could be fear around the pandemic, a political situation or the future. It could be in the private sphere in relationships, such as the fear ‘you’re going to leave me’ or ‘you’re going to hurt me’.

And so, when people are operating from a place of fear, it's like taking turns in a conversation where you're thinking about what you're going to say next as opposed to actually listening to what the other person is saying to you. If we can help that fear quiet and help the love increase, the love gets more space to do its magic.

Given increasing awareness on mental health and psychedelic research, would you say that now is a pivotal moment for love?

Dr Anne Wagner: I think it's always a pivotal time for love. I don't know that right now is any different than any other point in time, which also means that right now is incredibly important, as every other moment was as well.

But to think about it in the here and now, I think about the pressures of this time and that there's a heck of a lot of other forces that create the absolute need for this conversation on love. It seems like the conversation gets amplified when the stressors are great enough to create more and more fear. It's like you have to speak louder because otherwise the fear is going to win out.

Mary Cosimano: I agree with Anne- it’s always the time for love. There’s no question about that. But then we ask where are we now, and why are we talking about this now? I believe it is because the psychedelic renaissance is showing us a way to rediscover the love that has been lost. The message to me, as I know to all of us, from psychedelics is love - oneness. And I think we all agree that the pandemic made clear the importance of the oneness- the interconnectedness of us all.

Katalin Kálmán: Spiritual teachers from Buddha to Jesus (AS) and Prophet Mohammed (SAWS) have been talking about love for millennia. It’s nothing new. That said, I really think that we have to pause and have a look at the misuse and abuse of the term.

In recent years, the word ‘love’ has almost become a cheap neon sign. We’ve largely forgotten its profound healing energy. But that doesn’t mean people don’t yearn for it deep inside. The problem comes when we don’t know what love really is. It gets easy to be distracted by things that may look like love on the outside and that may superficially ease our yearning for it - like an abusive relationship or an addiction.

That’s why I think we have to rehabilitate love. We have to heal the concept of love that got sick. And now, after what the pandemic has taught us from self isolation to wearing masks and various acts of racial discrimination, we can no longer hide from the need to return to the concept of love.

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