A Qualitative Study of Intention and Impact of Ayahuasca Use by Westerners

This qualitative interview study (n=41) found that ayahuasca use by Westerners (in group settings), led to many sustained positive outcomes. These related to mental health, substance use, interpersonal relationships, and also creativity, physical health, connection to nature. Two participants indicated problematic experiences (sexual assault, enduring psychotic symptoms).

Abstract

“Ayahuasca has gained the attention of researchers over the past decade as psychedelic-assisted therapy for MDMA and psilocybin have progressed through FDA approved clinical trials. In spite of the increase in research, there are relatively few clinical studies of ayahuasca and little qualitative research on the therapeutic or healing uses of psychedelics in general. The present study included 41 Western participants who were interviewed about their participation in facilitated group ayahuasca experiences (e.g., in shamanic, neoshamanic, spiritual, and religious settings). Participants were interviewed about their intentions for participating, along with the perceived impact of the experiences. In particular, we focused on impacts that participants perceived to be sustained and enduring. We identified an impressive range of beneficial impacts, including improvements in areas that are often a focus of psychotherapy, such as mental health and substance use, health behaviors, interpersonal relationships, sense of self, attitude. Extratherapeutic effects were also observed in areas such as changes in creativity, somatic sensations, physical health/pain, sense of connection to nature, spirituality, and concern for the greater good. Two participants also reported problematic experiences, apparently related to set and setting. Implications for research and practice, along with a humanistic framework for interpreting these findings is provided.”

Authors: Geoff J. Bathje, Jonathan Fenton, Daniel Pillersdorf & London C. Hill

Notes

About half of the participants had done ayahuasca 1-20 times (n=22), about 25% had done it 11-25 times (n=10), and the rest had done it more often. On average, the last time was just over a year before the interviews.

They had participated in a variety of ayahuasca ceremonies, spanning four continents (i.e. the setting between experiences varied).

The intention of most participants was to either improve their mental health or other growth-focused intentions (e.g. improving relationships with others). The researchers found that these were also the areas where the participants found improvements. “Many participants felt their intentions were fulfilled, for example, many who sought to improve their mental health (e.g., depression or anxiety) experienced corresponding improvement. Other participants stated that they eventually obtained their desired outcome, but in less direct ways.”

Within the cluster of changes in mental health, four themes were identified:

  1. Less reliance on psychotropic medications (e.g. ADHD medication, SSRIs)
  2. Improvements in specific conditions (e.g. depression, PTSD, anxiety)
  3. Relationship to emotions (better tap into them)
  4. Post-use acute mental health symptoms

The last point related to two negative experiences. One participant was sexually assaulted by another participant at that ceremony (showing again the trouble with the illegality of psychedelics). Another participant experienced psychotic symptoms for three months after the ceremony and required antipsychotic medication.

I had some levels of depersonalization, dissociation. After 3 months it started tapering off. Then I went 3 months normal, other than I hope that doesn’t happen again.

Participants reported lower use of alcohol and cannabis, and other drugs after the use of ayahuasca. Some indicated that the experience (not indicated if that was the last one or an earlier one) broke a decades long problematic use of morphine.

Three themes with relationship to physical health were identified:

  1. Reduction in physical pain
  2. Healing from illness or disease (self-reported remission of liver cancer)
  3. Somatic changes in relationship to own body (e.g. feeling less stress)

With regards to self-care practices, four themes were identified:

  1. Reconnecting through mind-body practices
  2. Improvements in diet/nutrition
  3. Increased mindfulness in daily activities
  4. Stopping/reducing unhealthy habits

Creativity and career decisions were also impacted:

  1. Change in career path
  2. Enhanced work/career performance
  3. Access to creative expression (through increased confidence)

TBC

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