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Exploring the Role of Expressive Arts Therapy in Psychedelic Integration: Benefits and Considerations

Updated: May 31

As someone who has embarked on a journey of self-discovery through both psychedelic medicines and expressive arts therapy, I have witnessed firsthand the profound impact creative expression can have on the process of psychedelic integration. This therapeutic approach delves deep into the mind-body connection, allowing for non-verbal processing that can be instrumental in navigating the complexities of psychedelic experiences.


The domain of psychedelic medications is experiencing remarkable growth, as an increasing number of individuals turn to this avenue for addressing trauma, depression, anxiety, and various mental health issues. Art has played a significant role in expressing and assimilating altered states throughout history. However, within the field of psychedelic research and therapy, the incorporation of expressive arts therapy has been overlooked. Esteemed authorities in the field, such as Ann Shulgin, Gabor Mate, Stan Grof, and Bessel van der Kolk, emphasize the paramount importance of integration in this therapy.


I have devoted over 15 years to the exploration of psychedelics as part of my ongoing apprenticeship with indigenous and mestizo communities in the Peruvian Amazon, I delved deep into the ancestral practices surrounding psychedelic plant usage for emotional, mental, and physical well-being. 8 out of those 15 years I spent living full time in Peru, during the period from 2012 to 2017, I co-founded and directed  Canto Luz Center for research and cultural preservation. Our organization facilitated wellness retreats alongside local mestizo curanderos (healers), while also directing funds toward local sustainability projects. Throughout my career, I have served psychedelic medicine in a traditional setting to over a 1000 clients.

Upon my return to Canada in 2017 to prioritize my own family's creation, I've continued to lead retreat groups to the Peruvian Amazon. There, psychedelic plants like ayahuasca and huachuma (san pedro cactus) are not only legal but celebrated as integral parts of intangible cultural heritage. Additionally, I've been offering preparation and integration services (commonly simply referred to as “integration services”) for individuals worldwide who seek to engage in such experiences, despite their largely illegal status in Canada and other regions.



“The term “integration” has been utilized to describe the period following a psychedelic experience. A wide range of definitions has been put forward, characterized by an even wider variety of integrative practices, historically without models or guidance as to when and why particular practices might be chosen. Integration is often briefly mentioned in books and articles compared to preparing for, navigating, or facilitating psychedelic experiences, despite being widely cited as very important to retaining benefits and working through psychedelic experiences. In a recent survey of clinicians who received training in psychedelic-assisted therapies, the majority stated a desire for a better understanding of the concept of integration (Ali et al., 2021).” (Bathje GJ, Majeski E, Kudowor M. 2022). In navigating the realm of psychedelics, we currently encounter two predominant models: the indigenous approach and the westernized clinical method. Yet, in my extensive experience, neither fully accommodates clients whose cultural backgrounds do not incorporate the use of psychedelic substances.

Traditionally, psychedelic experiences are woven into the fabric of one's culture, accompanied by established frameworks for their safe use.While indigenous cultures offer practices that can be viewed as  preparation and integration, they may prove inaccessible to urban dwellers, given practices like extensive fasting or prolonged isolation outdoors. Alternatively, adopting rituals or practices from a culture without understanding or respecting their beliefs, or using cultural artifacts merely for decoration without acknowledging their significance, can render integration efforts culturally meaningless. There is an already growing body of psychotherapists and wellness practitioners offering psychedelic preparation and integration sessions. “Psychedelic Harm Reduction and Integration incorporates elements of psychedelic-assisted therapy, Mindfulness-based therapies, relational psychodynamic approaches, and Integrative Harm Reduction Psychotherapy to create a framework for working with patients who present either in the decision-making process prior to psychedelic use or afterward for assistance from a clinician. “ (Gorman I, Nielson EM, Molinar A, Cassidy K, Sabbagh J. 2021) In my personal opinion, the latter model presents a problem of colonization when working with substances that have traditional use, such as ayahuasca, huachuma, peyotl, sacred mushrooms etc. And even when used with non-traditional substances such as LSD, ketamine, MDMA and others, such approach often tends to be largely top heavy (as in very cognitive and analytical), with some somatic practices also being included, such as breathwork, visualization or somatic experiencing. While I do believe that there must be practitioners using the arts in their integration practice, it is still not widely discussed, adopted and even celebrated, as it should, in the field of psychedelic medicine. Expressive Arts Therapy operates on both top-down and bottom-up principles (Malchiodi C.2023), offering effective tools for both preparing for and integrating the psychedelic experience. Establishing a strong rapport with integration clients from the outset is crucial, given the potential legal concerns and the unfamiliar, sometimes unsettling nature of the psychedelic journey. Initiating our sessions with an Arts-Based Sensory Atunement facilitates rapid relationship-building, a particularly valuable approach given that I typically only meet with each client twice—once before and once after their psychedelic experience. Leveraging the versatility of artistic expression allows for the selection of activities that prioritize diversity, inclusion, and equity, further enhancing connection with the client. Expressive Arts Therapy offers a wide array of relational practices which are crucial when working with people who have experience non-oridnary states of consciousness.

When clients approach me for preparation, they often express vague intentions for their psychedelic session, describing it simply as "feeling the call." My approach emphasizes the importance of a well-defined intention as the cornerstone of preparation—a succinctly articulated direction or focal point for the client's journey. Clearly formulating a path for their personal growth and transformation, even visualizing it as if creating an illustration, helps clients maintain agency during their psychedelic session, serving as a grounding anchor. This intention also serves as the starting point for integration, allowing clients to reflect on the significance of their experience through the lens of their initial purpose.


 At the beginning of our session, I believe it's crucial to outline some core principles of Expressive Arts Therapy. This helps create a safe and supportive environment for processing or preparing for their journey.

I often start by emphasizing to the client that they are the expert in our session. I reassure them that their artwork will not be scrutinized or analyzed by me. Instead, my role is to guide them through a process of exploration, using artistic expression to delve into their experiences and insights. We often begin formulation through an artistic exploration with an open invitation to dream, to imagine an alternative to what is and to feel into the possibility, liminality of one's desires. Through aesthetic response to client's own work, we might begin bringing word associations or even poetry making or dialoging with the artwork. Condensing the non-verbal clues into a formulated intention that can serve one during their psychedelic experience.

Expressive Arts Therapy

Expressive arts interventions offer a valuable starting point for clients who struggle to articulate their goals for the psychedelic experience. By guiding clients' attention to bodily sensations, mental imagery, or even dramatic re-enactments of their current state, these interventions bridge the gap of language, facilitating exploration and understanding.

Encouraging clients to construct a personal altar for their session—gathering meaningful objects and arranging them mindfully—provides an opportunity for reflection on their identity, the components of their being, and the messages these parts may convey in dialogue. Through this process, the client can also identify their resources that would support them on the journey, be it inner or outer sources of strength, and include the representation of these resources into their artfully created altar, allowing to build more resilience.


Through collaborative exploration, we craft an intention rooted in the client's own words and associations, which they can carry into the psychedelic experience. By adhering to the principles of Expressive Arts Therapy, which views the client as the expert and prioritizes self-discovery through aesthetic response and harvesting process, sessions maintain a non-judgmental tone, fostering the client's sense of agency and empowerment throughout their journey.

 





Artistic expression transcends language and logic, allowing individuals to tap into their subconscious minds and access deeper layers of their psyche. Through art, movement, and music, individuals can explore their inner landscapes, confront challenges, and nurture a sense of connection and integration within themselves.


In conclusion, the fusion of expressive arts therapy and psychedelic integration offers a transformative path towards healing, self-discovery, and personal growth. By embracing creativity, individuals can harness the power of artistic expression to navigate the complexities of their inner worlds, integrate psychedelic insights, and embark on a journey of holistic healing and transformation.



To schedule a Zoom call to discuss the integration process, please provide me with your availability so that I can set up a meeting at a convenient time for you. Thank you.

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