Ayahuasca: A New Hope for Healing Trauma, PTSD, Addiction and Depression

An Excerpt from Listening to Ayahuasca by Rachel Harris, PhD

Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew from the Amazon rainforest, is entering the Western lexicon through the popular media, the internet, and first-person reports. Considered a medicine by practitioners, the tea has great therapeutic potential that is just beginning to be studied. As a result of her own personal experience with ayahuasca, Dr. Rachel Harris was inspired to research how this medicine was being used in North America in the largest study of this kind to date. Listening to Ayahuasca describes her findings, including miracle cures of depression and addiction, therapeutic breakthroughs, spiritual revelations, and challenging trips.   We hope you’ll enjoy this short excerpt from the book on Ayahuasca healing trauma.

“I eat less and feel better. I’m less negative, more sensitive to my spouse, less harsh, more loving. I feel better about myself, more alive. I learned how to live, how to love, how to help others.” This was Nathan’s description of how he changed as a result of participating in one hundred ayahuasca ceremonies over a ten-year period. A sixty-three-year-old teacher with a master’s degree, Nathan’s most recent experience with the medicine was two months before participating in the study. 

I learned how to live, how to love, how to help others.

Do one hundred ayahuasca ceremonies in ten years sound like an addiction problem? That would be an incorrect assumption for a few reasons. First of all, ayahuasca is not addictive. Second, what if Nathan described attending a meditation retreat every month for ten years? Would that sound like an addiction or like Nathan was a serious meditation student? I think it’s more accurate to say that the ayahuasca ceremonies were an integral part of Nathan’s psychospiritual life. 

Could psychotherapy have accomplished the same results for Nathan? I certainly hope so, but he’d already had years of therapy, from cognitive behavioral therapy to couples therapy. Evidently, it hadn’t helped, or perhaps it hadn’t helped enough. Nathan’s simple, yet clear description of his improved health habits — “I eat less and feel better” — is an important wake-up call to therapists. Therapists have told people to eat healthier for decades, and we all know how well that’s worked. Nathan’s overall characterization indicates he experienced a global shift, perhaps a spiritual opening, which is something that doesn’t necessarily happen even with successful therapy. 

I finally feel like myself. Yes, I love myself !

A thirty-three-year-old graduate student, Anna described her changes since drinking ayahuasca. After fifteen years of struggling with addictions, she said, “I never drank or smoked pot or touched any other substance like that again. I never had casual sex again or even a casual make-out session. And I cut back on sugar.” Anna’s central issue was her sense of self. “I finally feel like myself. Yes, I love myself !” She had never been in psychotherapy and had attended about fifty ayahuasca ceremonies. Her last ceremony was six years before the study, which gives us a clue about the long-lasting impact of the medicine for some people. 

Philip, age twenty-nine and a graduate student in psychology, said, “I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression, but I’m more accepting of them now.” Philip had undergone an array of therapeutic approaches and had seven experiences of drinking ayahuasca, the last one a few months before the study. He carefully distinguished between changes in anxiety and depression and his attitude toward these feelings. Although his ayahuasca experiences did not provide a miracle cure in the sense of removing anxiety and depression, they helped him to change how he related to these challenging feelings. Philip described an important inner shift that implies having greater compassion, possibly at a spiritual level beyond psychological acceptance. 

I no longer drink since puking out bad alcohol dependency three years ago with ayahuasca. I lost forty pounds and am now relatively athletic.

George, age twenty-seven and in graduate school, made a similar observation regarding how he deals with mood swings since drinking ayahuasca. “No changes in emotional moods, but my ability to handle them is 100 percent better!” George hadn’t had any psychotherapy, but he had participated in twenty-two ayahuasca ceremonies over several years prior to the study. He wrote, “I no longer drink since puking out bad alcohol dependency three years ago with ayahuasca. I lost forty pounds and am now relatively athletic. I became a vegan after my tenth ceremony. My relationships are no longer codependent. I no longer feel self-esteem problems. I feel incredibly happy and centered and better able to deal with adverse situations.” 

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George asked his parents to answer the question, “Did anyone close to you notice any changes in you?” I included this question to obtain a more objective perspective regarding how people changed since drinking ayahuasca. Born-again Christians, George’s parents wrote that they “couldn’t fathom how a plant had helped George find so much health and love.” We have to give George a lot of credit for sharing his journey with his parents, and their response reflects how mystified they are about his experience and how relieved they are that he’s feeling much better. 

I now love myself. I have compassion for myself. I relate to my inner selves as parts of myself, not as enemies.

Nancy, a forty-two-year-old college graduate and farmer, had attended seventy-five ceremonies during the six years before the study. She’d tried a number of different therapies on and off for ten years, from talk therapy to somatic therapy. She wrote that as a result of her ayahuasca experiences: “I’m more stable and grounded, less likely to get swept up in my own dramas. I’m more willing to allow my feelings, but differentiate them from ‘moods,’ which can be caused by an imbalanced brain/body chemistry. I’m a better listener and more patient. I have more awareness of what I’m doing and as a result am not so self-destructive. I no longer drink alcohol. Weight loss. Asthma gone. Junk food doesn’t seem so appealing. I now love myself. I have compassion for myself. I relate to my inner selves as parts of myself, not as enemies.” After all that, Nancy still felt compelled to add an additional note: “It’s not an overstatement to say ayahuasca saved my life — more than once.” 

Lewis was a fifty-three-year-old college grad working as a tele-com technician who’d never had therapy. At the time of the study, Lewis had been a member of the Santo Daime Church for three years and had about eighty experiences with ayahuasca — or the “Daime,” as the medicine is known in the church, where it’s revered as a sacrament. Lewis wrote, “I’m more socially outgoing, more attentive to others, and less self-absorbed; more open, spontaneous, and expressive. I’m less self-critical, more accepting with a better understanding of who I am as opposed to who I thought I was. I feel much less sadness, less anxiety and gloomy thoughts. I have flashes of joy and hope, the possibility of being alive. I’m aware of the possibility of transcendence. I want to live before I die.” 

Lewis is certainly quite expressive now. If we listen between the lines, we can hear how depressed he must have been before embarking on his journey with the Daime. Previous to my own experiences with ayahuasca, I would’ve thought, Here’s a guy in desperate need of therapy. Now, however, I appreciate the therapeutic potential in this ancient medicine to relieve major, lifelong depression. This is just one of the ways I’ve changed my thinking since embarking on my own ayahuasca journey. 

The self-reports describe the therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca: better sense of self, improved interpersonal relationships, less depression and anxiety, healthier lifestyle, and relief from addictions. These are also the central themes in psychotherapy, regardless of theoretical model or practical technique. What therapist doesn’t want to hear that his or her clients feel better and have more positive thoughts and moods? That their inner critic is less harsh, and they feel more accepting and loving toward themselves and their close relationships? Or that clients are taking better care of themselves, eating healthier, exercising more, and stopping addictive behaviors? These central themes are the bedrock of personal well-being and the hallmarks of a meaningful life. 

Watch an interview with Rachel Harris on the transformational potential of Ayahuasca here:

The piece on the healing powers of Ayahuasca was excerpted with permission from Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety. by Rachel Harris, New World Library.

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