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Are Psychedelics Escapist? Or Meaning-Making?

Escapism — a distraction or tool?

It’s been a long, arduous month for you. Work frequently drags into the late night and your spouse is about ready to call it quits after 3 weeks straight of them taking care of the kids and household chores alone. Your friends have practically forgotten you exist. And you just missed a big family gathering at your niece’s birthday. Did she turn 3? Or was it 5?

When your day finally ends and there is miraculously nothing to take care of (the kids are at a sleepover), what do you do? Turn on the TV? Talk to your spouse to work through your marital issues? Call your family to apologize?

For most people in this situation, you turn on the TV. Even if you could summon up the energy to have a conversation with your family you’re pretty sure it would end up in an argument because you’re so overwhelmed. You need a break, a breath of air, before you can even begin to face the next crisis.

This is escapism. We are familiar with it. It shows its form as TV, scrolling through news or social media, a glass of wine after work, an affair, a Broadway show, or even a hard workout at the gym. (For me, it can literally be an escape room — having done 200+ around the world I am verifiably obsessed.)

In fact, nearly anything could be escapism depending on your context. In fact, work itself is escapism from family for some, whereas family life is escapism from career troubles for others. Only we ourselves know internally what “counts” as escapism because we can feel it pulling us away from what we are avoiding.

Now imagine you’re on the field playing a fierce game of soccer (or football). The game isn’t going well and you have just minutes left on the clock. As you suffer a near injury and lose the ball to another enemy goal in the latest in-game kerfuffle, your coach calls a timeout.

A time-out is a bit different from escapism. It is a break when you can re-strategize. Without this time-out, you would likely continue down a path of losing the game. Your team is essentially doing psychological recovery for a brief few moments so you can jump back into the game reoriented toward victory.

Metacognitions — the problem of the white bear

Now let’s take a moment to focus on a different topic.

Metacognitions, AKA meta-thoughts, are thoughts about the thoughts we think. Metacognitions can be negative, in which case we call them ruminations. These are the exact thoughts that leads to negative thought loops found in depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

The problem is, humans find it extremely hard to stop metacognition loops. Consider the problem of the white bear. The exercise requires you to close your eyes for a minute while following the instruction: “Don’t think about a white bear.”

What happened? Of course you end up thinking about a white bear. That is, unless you are a Jedi, a well-trained meditation expert, or so sleep-deprived that you fell asleep during that minute. We humans naturally can’t help but think about things we most purposefully avoid thinking about. That’s why depression and anxiety are such complicated, sticky problems.

One strategy for dealing with rumination, worries, anxieties, and so on is to distract yourself from them. Imagine if, during your one minute white bear exercise, a lightning bolt hit a tree right outside your window. I’d bet $10 you’d stop thinking about the white bear.

Back to psychedelics. During a session, psychedelics (particularly ketamine as a dissociative) help you disconnect from your everyday experience and enliven your deep dream world. Like the dreams which happen in your sleep, the thoughts and visions which appear are random but loosely connected to your recent thoughts and experiences in “real life.” Unlike sleep dreams, psychedelic experiences are more vivid, memorable, and accompanied by heightened sensations (hearing, sight, emotions, and so forth).

The utter vividness and “realer than realness” of these psychedelic experiences provides a welcome distraction from the white bear, or our stickiest negative metacognitions or ruminations.

Psychedelics as a time-out

Psychedelics are sometimes portrayed in a negative light as escapism or a distraction. Yes, like we discussed above, psychedelics certainly can be a distraction even when nothing else can remove our ruminations.

However, therapeutic psychedelic sessions are more strategic time-outs rather than classic escapist experiences. Yes, it can be enjoyable, delightful, and incredibly fun to have a psychedelic experience. But psychedelics can also bring deep insights and other useful emotional, even spiritual material. Because of the substance which comes up during a therapeutic psychedelic session, they are more akin to time-outs.

When you go through a therapeutic psychedelic session with ketamine, you can experience a range of feelings. At the most subtle, your brain turns down its Default Mode Network activity which allows you to think through your life or meditate more peacefully. At its most extreme, you have an out-of-body experience filled with vivid waking dreams and the sensation of not being yourself, perhaps even undergoing a near-death experience.

If you return from such an experience with a sense of awe, but then do nothing with it, that is escapism. That’s not a bad thing, any more than going on vacation to Italy is a bad thing. You probably feel better and even revitalized afterward. However, a psychedelic session has the potential to be so much more. The material that comes up might be a new perspective of an old wound or trauma. It could be a practice scenario for a potentially frightening transition like death. No matter what comes up, it has great potential for you to use toward a stronger, more fulfilling future.

The role of integration

Integration, as we’ve discussed in multiple previous posts, is a key practice to help realize the full potential of psychedelic sessions. Integration is “simply” the active analysis, processing, and application of the material which comes up during a psychedelic experience. You can undergo integration with a coach, a therapist, or even on your own if you have the structure and tools to do so.

Going back to the analogy of a psychedelic session as a time-out, you can use the integration period as a strategy session. You take all the material which came up during the session, then you analyze, process, and apply your conclusions to your life. Sometimes this looks like a new way of communicating with your partner. Other times it looks like a new perspective which helps you feel newly invigorated at work.

Making meaning

A final note about psychedelics as a time-out tool. The material we are given in psychedelic sessions can be seen as ingredients of a recipe for the next phase of our lives. But we are the chefs, the magicians, the directors of this phase. Even if two people were to have precisely the same psychedelic experience (which would probabilistically never occur), they would absolutely not come to the same conclusions nor apply such conclusions to their lives the same way.

This is the reason why it’s important which guides we employ to assist us in our masterpiece. Whether it’s a coach, a friend, or a book which influences us in this malleable stage after a psychedelic session, our integration tools will heavily play into our futures in a way a similar person or piece of content would not in a non-psychedelic period of our lives.

Psychedelic experiences push us toward making new connections in our brains (neuroplasticity and synaptogenesis). The process makes us want to make meaning in our actions and experiences. It functionally means we have the opportunity to become new babes in an old world, given a fresh chance to find meaning and purpose with a different perspective.

And so, psychedelics have an incredible range — from simple but necessary distractions to much more important revelatory future-building experiences. It is important, therefore, that you are mindful of your integration practices both immediately and for a long period after each psychedelic experience. These can be some of the most significant meaning-making times of your life.

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Hillary Lin, MD

Hillary Lin, MD

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Co-founder and CEO of Curio, a psychedelic online mental health clinic. Stanford BS, MD.