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Recent research suggests that cannabis-assisted psychotherapy can lead to mental health breakthroughs.
Psychotherapy, in general, is a practice that incorporates talking to a professional about mental health and emotional well-being, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Similar to psychedelic-assisted therapy, the practice combines the use of substances with a new sense of emotional awakening. Patients tap into their consciousness during the experience in order to access sources of trauma, depression, anxiety and more.
According to the Psychedelic Somatic Institute, cannabis-assisted therapy deactivates the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN is how the brain interacts with itself without external factors. When deactivated, this allows patients to have more uncensored, natural thoughts without inhibitions. Moreover, this may help patients process better unconscious memories and emotions.
Interestingly, according to Psychedelic Passage, a group focused on harm reduction, cannabis’ psychedelic properties put patients in relaxed states. These properties can allow the substance to reveal uncomfortable and traumatic memories and emotions.
How Cannabis-Assisted Psychotherapy Works
Cannabis-assisted psychotherapy involves working or speaking with a therapist who helps put a patient into a deeply calm state.
The therapy is taking off across the country as more professionals offer services in a guided environment. One such organization is Dimensions Retreats, a psychedelic wellness retreat center that focuses on plant medicine, including cannabis-assisted psychotherapy.
Clinical Director Donald Currie emphasized the importance of the therapist in such situations. Having integration is essential for applying what patients discover in sessions to how they feel, he explained.
First, the patient begins by inhaling cannabis. They then feel a connection with their emotions, a bodily sensation and/or a connection with past sadness or grief. Trauma remains in the nervous system, and patients can suddenly become aware of exactly where in the body it exists, according to Currie.
“That is something that the skill of the therapist can help navigate when those thoughts are present,” he said.
Currie explained that some patients get emotional while others have a more pensive experience.
He emphasizes set, setting and skill. Set refers to the patient’s mindset – they must be ready to heal, process and understand their intentions. The setting refers to where the session takes place, usually in a therapist’s office. The skill refers to that of the therapist: they must be trained to help with things like breathing, focusing, healing, cannabis itself and more.
Curie said therapists have the role of applying the wisdom and knowledge of the experience to everyday life. These realizations lead to healing.
A Look Into Cannabis-Assisted Psychotherapy Sessions
Cannabis-assisted psychotherapy begins with sessions without cannabis. Patients come in and decide they want to heal something in their life.
Their set – mindset and intentions – must be open to healing. But first, there are preliminary sessions without the medicine that occur between the patient and the therapist. Together, they discover why the patient is interested or what trauma they need to address. Then, they can pursue a ceremony.
During the ceremony, the patient reconnects with their intention. They inhale cannabis using a vape while the therapist takes them through a mindfulness meditation.
Dimensions Retreat uses a blend of three strains: indica, sativa and a hybrid strain. The use of both sativa and indica cancel out each others’ undesirable effects so patients don’t feel too in their heads or too relaxed.
The vape also contains nanoencapsulated CBD to smooth out the experience. It has other cannabinoids, like CBN, to enhance cannabis’ psychedelic potential by increasing brain wave dream images.
Therapists use a process that brings focus from the outside world to the body.
“Cannabis requires more of a mindfulness-based approach so that people can start to go inwards and tune-in,” Currie said.
For instance, patients listen to ambient music with no vocals. Currie also uses a Shruti Box, crystal bowls, crystal harps, monochords, or toning chants to calm patients down. The music should not have any words, according to Currie, because it keeps the patient’s prefrontal cortex and attention on their body and mind.
“The music is meant to support without activating the conscious mind,” Currie further explained.
Therapists use the 80/20 approach – 80% of the session, the patient is journeying on their own. During the other 20%, therapists help navigate the experience.
Cannabis-Assisted Psychotherapy on Trauma and Other Disorders
Interestingly, patients can journey through a range of issues like PTSD, depression, anxiety, trauma resolution and more, according to Currie.
While this form of therapy is still emerging, scientists are conducting more research into its healing benefits.
According to The Center for Medicinal Mindfulness, the body may experience deep muscle-relaxation to help with trauma resolution while moving energy through the body during cannabis-assisted psychotherapy. This is done through regulations in the nervous system.
Patients are then able to travel through their memories with heightened awareness for certain anxieties and negative responses, according to the center. Patients feel present in their minds – they don’t stay in a dissociative state.
According to a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, participants reported feeling more “at-one” with their surroundings when participating in cannabis-assisted psychotherapy.
Results showed that participants had similar effects to psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy in dealing with cancer-related distress, treatment-resistant depression, alcohol problems and more. Overall, they felt more open and more accepting of their conditions.
Other research points toward the plant’s ability to ease depression. For example, a study in the journal Cannabis states that cannabis improves negative thoughts around self-image and helplessness. These emotional breakthroughs can help overcome dysfunctional attitudes, which overall improves depression.
The History Behind Cannabis-Assisted Psychotherapy
Cannabis-assisted psychotherapy took off in 2012, according to Currie.
Daniel McQueen, pioneer of the practice, started The Center for Medicinal Mindfulness in Boulder, Colorado. The center currently offers ketamine, cannabis and MDMA-assisted therapies. They wanted to improve mindfulness, self-acceptance and self-awareness using such substances.
Cannabis-assisted psychotherapy has become increasingly popular, especially as legalization and the availability of cannabis spreads. Currie said that therapists and clinics are starting to offer the practice across the U.S. and Canada.
“There are many therapists that are now training in this modality and awareness of cannabis-assisted therapy and cannabis as a psychedelic is increasing,” he said.
Some experts like Currie consider it a good stepping stone before engaging in other drug-assisted therapies.
“They can start with cannabis, and it’s almost like a way of training yourself to go into these altered states. So I see it as a really safe first step for a lot of people,” Currie said.
Post from @dimensionsretreats on Instagram.
Other Drug-Assisted Therapies
Currie believes cannabis has the potential to help heal people as much as any other medicine. He also said that this is possible today due to stronger cannabis strains. For instance, modern day cannabis is three times stronger than it was 20 years ago and has higher THC levels. This gives the substance more psychedelic effects.
Because of these effects, Currie said that cannabis-assisted psychotherapy is similar to psilocybin or ayahuasca-assisted psychotherapies. These therapies prove promising in treating anxiety, PTSD, mood disorders, substance-use disorders and more, according to Verywell Mind.
There’s one important difference, though. “People have more agency with cannabis than they do with psilocybin or ayahuasca,” he said. At any point in the session, patients are able to stop, collect themselves and go back to the therapy when they’re ready.
Currie also sees it as more accessible than other drug-assisted therapies. For example, patients do not have to travel far, and it is mostly legal around the country.
Currie acknowledged that many individuals feel uncomfortable with drug-assisted therapies, including cannabis. There’s a reason to be cautious. A misconception he wants to debunk is that it’s totally safe.
“Cannabis has a very high safety profile if it’s used in the right relationship. What we mean by the right relationship is using it intentionally and on a healthy schedule. It’s completely safe and effective,” Currie said.
Integration with the therapist is one of the most important parts, he explained.
“Taking a psychedelic medicine does not mean that change is going to happen,” he said. “It’s the wisdom and knowledge we get from that experience that we can take and apply to our life.”