Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash
I embarked on this project to explore the role of bodywork as a potential adjunct to existing methods used to integrate psychedelic experiences. The project involved working with volunteers who are using psychedelics for therapeutic reasons, to see how bodywork - and in my case I use a bodywork modality called Zero Balancing - could help them integrate their experiences. The three volunteers that came forward each wrote about their experiences and these can be read here (one, two and three).
I've been reflecting on this topic over the past few months, in part because I knew I wanted to continue it, or at the very least wrap it up with a summary. Quite where this blog post will sit in the scheme of this project remains to be seen. Regardless, it's a good opportunity to take stock.
Psychedelics (and I include MDMA in this category for the sake of ease due to its strong therapeutic potential) are becoming increasingly more widespread in therapeutic applications, with more and more research being funded to explore its uses in different areas of need. That's changed even in the 6 months since I embarked upon this project. And this is all due to the incredible potential they have, some of which I touched upon in the project's opening blog post. The results of these studies and the supporting data signal a seismic shift in the treatment of mental health disorders. This is nothing but good news, because the current pharmacological model for the treatment of mental health problems is inadequate.
Psychedelics enable an individual to step back from their every day perception of themselves and introduce a degree of neuroplasticity, freeing the individual up to the potential to change. To change their view or interpretation of events in their lives, and themselves. And notably for the better. Researchers suggest that the body's innate drive for homeostasis - its natural healing ability - is somehow able to come to the fore after the ingestion of these substances. So it's not only the promising results of the research that signals we may be in for a significant step forward in the treatment of mental health care, but there's a paradigm shift in what is viewed as the causative factor of healing. It's not the psychedelics themselves. It's the body's innate healing ability.
Take a moment to drink that in.
In a society where the blame is often put on some chemical imbalance or the genes you inherited or an allergen, we often seek to alter the chemical balance, combat the protein expression of the genes, or suppress the immune system. And that of course requires pharmaceuticals. Which are patented and sold for profit.
And along come psychedelics, which are often naturally occurring, unpatentable and sold with small profit margins. They've a long history of use for insight, creativity and healing. And it's as if modern society is just catching up and says, "Hey, these help the body to heal itself." And they are now rapidly close to becoming legally available for therapeutic purposes.
This, to me, is hugely exciting. Whether people are consciously aware of this or not, we are validating that our ancestors knew of this healing potential, that this healing potential was to be valued and, indeed, protected. We are validating that the body is capable of healing itself - by no means a new concept, but one that the profit driven industry has tried to obscure.
Alongside other shifts in the prevailing wisdom also increasingly supported by research - particularly trauma being stored in the body, and how one's social and life circumstances play a huge role in one's state of health - a more holistic view of wellbeing is once again coming to the fore. And potentially for the first time in modern or Western society. Socially and environmentally oriented policies therefore are not just a matter for socialists and environmentalists, but science backed and a matter of public health. And indeed global health.
If you can't tell already, the imminent emergence of psychedelic assisted psychotherapy gives me hope. Not just for the future of mental health treatment, but for the future of humanity and the planet.
But it's not the only thing that gives me hope. Bodywork and other somatic approaches for the treatment of trauma and mental health problems is another below-the-radar operation that is yet to have its heyday.
My personal experience of the therapeutic benefit of bodywork is what continues to drive my passion for this work. It has enabled me to come to terms with so many difficult parts of my past and continues to help me to embody and get in touch with my true self. And I think it's time in the limelight is due.
Yes, this is a personal crusade of sorts. To experience that someone's touch can alter your state of consciousness so you can access deep and forgotten memories is mind blowing. And that those memories can then be brought to awareness for processing, which in turn results in insights and physical healing is nothing short of profound. Healing the past to heal your body and mind is not something only bodywork can do. But it can do it.
So when I learnt that psychedelic integration was the challenging part for many who had therapeutic psychedelic experiences, I knew bodywork could help. For starters, we already help people to process all sorts of life experiences - grief, relationship problems, divorce, abuse, PTSD... you name it - so I did not doubt it was possible. Secondly, much of the difficulty with integration I heard or read about was to do with difficulty in grounding the insights and learnings from the psychedelic experience into their daily lives. What better way to ground experience than to work with the ground of our being, our physical body? You cannot manifest change in the world without enacting and expressing it into the world. And that can't be done without the use of your body.
Was there any success with those three volunteers?
Yes, absolutely. But not in the way that I, and perhaps they, had expected. Rather than simply grounding the psychedelic experience in their bodies, my perception was that the bodywork continued where the psychedelics left off.
Blockages highlighted by the psychedelics were removed. Good feelings of love and universality were amplified and allowed to move through. Stuck emotions hinted at during the psychedelic experience were released.
Looking purely at the initial outcomes and the catharsis experienced by the volunteers, these sessions were not different to sessions with clients who don't use psychedelics for therapeutic purposes. Just like the psychedelic compound itself is a facilitator of the body's own healing processes, so is therapeutic touch. The healing is always very unique to the individual, just as I imagine every psychedelic experience to be. But underneath all that we are all human. We all have grief, pain, joys, loves. And in that sense healing is also universal.
Whilst I had the idea that I, as a therapist, could connect in with the psychedelic experience and bring it into sync with the physical body, I was instead humbled - as working in this line of work often has the tendency to do - by the clients and what actually happened. This was a useful reminder that the therapist never dictates the healing. That is always for the client to do. And just like with psychedelics, the client don't always get what they want, but what they need.
It's clear from reading the accounts that all three volunteers received benefit from Zero Balancing. It helped them to deepen their understanding of their experiences - whether psychedelic or not - and enabled them to continue their personal development without the need for taking many hours out of their days to have a therapeutic psychedelic experience.
I have also learnt that having 3 sessions in relatively quick succession (a week apart for the first two volunteers, and 10 days apart for the third) provided a powerful therapeutic container for a deeper relationship to build between therapist and client, and this subsequently produced more profound and lasting effects. At least, that is my interpretation and experience. I have since utilised the 3 session model on other clients and that reinforced this understanding.
Volunteer #2's statement also really struck me: "I believe that Zero Balancing has helped me to rapidly integrate insights from Psychedelic therapy and provided me a way forward that otherwise may have taken months or years." Whilst this is what I aspired to when I started the project, I never thought I would read those words. And the impact of them is still sinking in.
Will I carry on with my personal crusade to place bodywork more into the spotlight?
Honestly, I do not know if that is my battle. I'd rather follow my passions and see what happens. Should that involve promoting this beautiful therapeutic art into the mainstream, only time will tell.
What I do know is that I am convinced that any psychedelic integration without a touch-based somatic approach is missing a powerful therapeutic ally. And that, I guess, is how I frame this. Bodywork is a powerful therapeutic modality in its own right, and an ally to all other therapeutic modalities. No one modality will heal the world of all its ills. Stronger together, stronger in collaboration. I therefore extend an open invitation to work with those in the psychedelic integration realm to explore this further. There is untouched (pun intended!) potential here.