by Julie Nguyen
“The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.” - Aldous Huxley
Psychonauts and psychedelic practitioners regularly preach the importance of preparation with the right set & setting. After those conditions have been met and your intentions created, you then take your hallucinogenic compound of choice and slip into a temporary state of expanded consciousness.
Oftentimes, psychedelic explorations happen in liminal spaces between regular life. A peaceful retreat in nature, a private ceremony at home, or a week at Burning Man, diving deeper into yourself before you’re thrown back into the familiarity of your old routine. But how can you hold onto the newfound magic while still maintaining the structures of your previous self?
Psychedelics can take you to the door of perception but the substances only go so far in making material changes in your current reality. To unlock the door and walk to the other side, integration is the key.
Simply put, integration is the most important part of your psychedelic experience. It is a process in which you reflect and actively engage in making sense of, working through, translating, and processing the content of your psychedelic experience. During integration, you are assimilating and accommodating the experience psychologically, then implementing insights into lasting changes.
Without the proper aftercare protocol in place, the potentially life-altering lessons can quickly fade away. The fantastical trip and all of its benefits can begin to feel distant until you’re completely removed from it. To avoid it becoming a memory, integration is the time to bring all of the old and new elements into a whole and then anchor them into your life.
Integration provides the time needed to deeply deconstruct all of the new information and install these new perspectives into your daily lives. Being able to deprogram deeply entrenched habits and limited ways of being that no longer serve you is the real work. Finding the right support system via a psychedelic psychotherapist or psychedelic coach can help you sift through all of the new information and create rituals that bring you closer to making long-lasting changes.
Research has found psychedelics, such as ketamine, can boost neural and synaptic plasticity in your brain functioning. This has been used to great efficacy to treat acute and chronic pain, mental illnesses, trauma, major depression, bipolar disorder and suicidal behavior.
Developing studies show a single dose of ketamine can increase the number of dendritic spines in the prefrontal cortex.
The growing neuronal connection is extremely effective in promoting plasticity promoting compounds in the brain and thus, making the adaptive mechanisms in the brain particularly neuroplastic and malleable to changes. Similarly, researchers confirmed that after a single dose of psilocybin mushrooms, your emotions and brain functioning are still being positively altered for one month.
“To oversimplify a bit, there are two main effects of psychedelics: the chemical, and the psychological. The first is the rewiring to help your brain break down old, harmful negative ‘grooves.’” says Dr. Hillary Lin, CEO of Curio. “The latter is the material which comes up during the sessions to inspire positive changes in your life. That psychological piece is why integration is important.”
As Dr. Lin puts it, what makes integration so powerful is how you can optimize this brief window of time where you can work with your brain’s neuroplastic window. After a psychedelic experience, it’s neurologically and psychologically easier to form new habits, internalize insights, and move towards transformative behavior. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy as part of your practice also helps tether your learnings into your current reality, not just in the dreamscapes of your mind.
Integration can come in many forms. It can be as simple as quiet reflection in solitude, journaling, sitting outside in nature, group discussion, ceremony, breathwork, or prayer. A journey of emptying things about your life that no longer serve you and only putting back in the things that make sense, slowly and deliberately. But there is no inherently right or wrong way to integrate, it’s about understanding what works best for you as an individual.
There is a wide range of options for integration protocols. In a 2022 study by Frontiers In Psychology, the paper noted these protocols can be categorized across a spectrum of focus areas, from Somatic, Contemplative, Spiritual, to Lifestyle and more.
According to the researchers, there are at least 10 well established models for psychedelic integration. They can be grouped into different categories of experiences along with a continuum practice style, as depicted on the Synthesized Model for Integration: Visionary Plant Medicine Integration, Holistic Model for a Balanced Life, Realms of Integration, SAFETY, Nature Relatedness, Psychedelic Harm Reduction and Integration Model, Modes of Experiencing, Jungian psychology, ACT, and ACE.
Depending on the individual and what works with them, integration practices differ. For example at Curio, the startup deploys adaptive integration coaching methodology that draws upon techniques used in Motivational Interviewing, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with an emphasis on mindfulness.
As a whole, these models see integration as the practice of connecting many parts of existence such as relationships, community, lifestyle, nature, contemplation, and somatic work. Integration is not just seen as the process of overcoming an isolated challenge or processing a few psychedelic experiences, but “bringing balance and alignment to one’s whole existence. It is assumed within each of these models that integration is often a lengthy process or even the core project of our lives.”
Many of these protocols are recent publications (beginning 2017), which underscores a psychedelic renaissance currently underway. But it’s essential to recognize that psychedelic protocols have existed for millenia through indigenous cultures. In these environments, psychedelic ceremonies are often performed within the community. Once individuals emerge from their trips, shamans and loved ones are able to support their integration journey through ongoing conversation with another.
However in western society, unless it’s through psychedelic-assisted therapy, a psychedelic experience usually happens in a singular experience. Once the psychedelic ceremony has been concluded, it’s common to jump back into the daily rhythm of life. The isolation of the experience can lead to feeling misunderstood by others in your life, or simply forgetting much as you go back to past routines.
Learning ways to integrate your psychedelic learnings is one of the most challenging, yet important, pieces of the entire journey. In our work with our members, we teach the language and skills to more seamlessly bring such material into everyday life.
Having an integration practice allows you to re-meet moments where your higher self can practice the teachings. It is one of the most important factors in having a lasting positive impact from your psychedelic experience.
Transformative change is possible, but it happens slowly, and through consistency and intention. Working with a psychedelic coach or a psychotherapist can help provide structure, techniques, accountability, and emotional support throughout the journey. Ketamine-assisted therapy startups, such as Curio, are now creating the conditions for safe and meaningful discoveries. There are abundant resources now available for those seeking a transcendent and life-changing opportunity to heal and connect.