Updated: Jun 12
Perhaps the most important difference between psychedelic medicines and other medicines is that the effect of psychedelic medicines depends heavily on the context in which they are taken. Most medicines work the same anywhere. If you have a severe allergic reaction, an Epi-pen will save your life at home, in an ambulance, or on a subway. With psychedelic medicines, like ketamine or psilocybin, the place that you take the medicine and the frame of mind that you are in can completely change the effect of the medicine. This is the lesson that we have been struggling to learn since the late sixties. These medicines are neither good or bad for you in and of themselves, but the context in which they are taken can make them either. With that in mind, how do we attend to creating a context around the use of psychedelic medicines that leads to the desired outcome?
Whether it was a sandy beach, a remote waterfall, or an amazing sunrise in the rearview mirror on the way to work, we all have had moments of awe that were inspired by nature, where, for a moment, we were undistracted and present as a witness to grandeur. Nature's ability to inspire awe is what gives it the power to awaken us to the moment and remind us that the world is large, mysterious, and capable of both shocking beauty and frightening power. Feeling small is a strange but wonderful gift. It is only fairly recently in human history that it has been possible to live a life disconnected from nature. There is increasing evidence that this disconnect leads to worsened physical and mental health.
We are all from the same place. This is a summation of what is known as the "astronaut effect", wherein people who have traveled to space consistently report a transformation in their perspective of the earth. Consistently, they describe the realization that we all inhabit this one, marbled, blue oasis in the middle of an inconceivably large void of black emptiness. Despite the vast differences in our personal experiences, we share a home whose rooms are so large and varied that it's easy to forget that they are all contained under one roof of sky and stars. Nature is the universal context for transformative experiences because no one is really from anywhere else besides nature. Natural settings offer us the context that our minds were designed for, and from.
We know from consistent and repeated research that nature exposure is good for humans. People who's hospital rooms face natural settings heal quicker with fewer complications. Children who play in natural environments suffer less anxiety. Daily walks in the woods lower blood pressure and boost our immune system. This should not be a surprise. Nature is where we are from and what created us. We are not designed for flat brightly-lit sterile spaces full of electronics, and the current health of our society clearly demonstrates that.
Here lies a bridge between our knowledge of the importance of nature connectedness and a thoughtful approach to the use of psychedelic medicines. Two recent studies show a correlation between the use of psychedelic medicines and the degree to which an individual feels connected to nature. I have included links to the entire studies at the end of this piece. The studies show that a single psychedelic experience is associated with increasing nature connectedness in both the weeks and years after use. Given that nature connectedness is linked to multiple measures of health and wellness, we can use the effects of psychedelic medicines to potentiate health if we use them in the context of natural settings.
It is easier to return to a place after you have been there the first time. The psychedelic experience can be thought of as a novel destination where there is less ego and more possibility of seeing our connectedness to people and places. When we know that this space exists, it is easier to return there without the guiding hand of psychedelic medicines and therapists. A thoughtfully organized psychedelic experience can teach us how to recognize the moments in life when we are devoid of ego and aware of the interconnectedness that creates our lives. By growing our ability to connect to natural surroundings we can learn to seek that space in quiet moments of awe. If you have hiked through the Appalachian mountains, you know that you can only see one mountain from the exposed summit of another. The summits are invisible from the dense foliage below. But knowing that the summit view exists makes the long walks through rhododendron tunnels between mountain tops a chance to reflect on where you have been and where you are going without just feeling lost in the woods.
Our approach at Asheville Integrative Psychiatry is to begin with nature connection as a learnable skill prior to psychedelic therapy. We believe that this creates a framework where the psychedelic experience can be integrated into daily life for continued personal growth after the medicine sessions are completed. Connecting more fully to nature is always possible and it is something that any of us can learn to do better. And there are very few side effects other than the occasional bug bite or sunburn.