Since psilocybin mushrooms were decriminalized in Oregon in 2020 and legalized at licensed service centers in 2023, many individuals have sought this form of alternative healing to find relief from PTSD, anxiety, depression, and a number of other conditions. Unsurprisingly, magic mushrooms weren’t their first treatment approach. Individuals suffering from chronic mental health issues generally try several different forms of talk therapy and pharmaceutical medications before pursuing something as novel as psychedelic-assisted therapy.
I have worked as a legal psilocybin facilitator in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru for the last three years, and have seen this medicine have extraordinary impacts. It’s becoming a cliche to say that a “six-hour mushroom journey is like six years of therapy.” And, indeed, some individuals experience significant psychological improvements from a psilocybin journey that years of therapy haven’t achieved. Yet, in my experience, the vast majority of people have benefited from traditional therapy. However, they’ve reached a limit or a plateau that psilocybin helps them transcend.
After guiding more than a hundred people through psilocybin journeys, I’ve developed a deep respect for the therapeutic modalities that help individuals prepare for and integrate their experience in expanded consciousness. EMDR is one of the most supportive modalities I’ve encountered.
EMDR As Preparation for Psilocybin Therapy
EMDR is commonly used as a therapeutic approach for PTSD, allowing individuals to access memories of a traumatic event in a specific way and reprocess negative feelings. The ultimate aim is for the individual to be able to remember the event without feeling like they’re reliving it, and for the associated emotions to become more manageable.
Similarly, an individual with PTSD may find themselves entering a traumatic memory during their psychedelic journey with psilocybin. Given the visionary effects of the medicine, some people see/experience the traumatic situation very realistically, while others experience it more abstractly or emotionally without a clear visual component. Similar to the EMDR therapist, the psilocybin guide might find themselves supporting the individual in reprocessing or (to use Peter Levine’s term, “renegotiating”) the traumatic memory to instill newfound feelings of safety and empowerment. The journeyer should not passively re-experience their trauma, but have a unique opportunity to review it from a place of safety and expanded understanding, which can ultimately lead to a shift in how one perceives the event and its aftermath. It is not uncommon for me to hear my clients say, “I was protected all along,” “I have so much compassion for myself,” or “I forgive you” during this phase of the journey.
My clients who have done EMDR therapy prior to a psilocybin journey often declare that they felt more prepared. Because they’ve intentionally faced their trauma in non-altered consciousness, they feel more confident and curious about doing so in the space of expanded consciousness. In one individual’s words:
“EMDR absolutely, 100%, without any doubt, helped me prepare to go deeper in the journey. I also feel it took some fear away. It was as if I trained to sit with the discomfort so when it was time for the ‘real deal’ (with psilocybin), my body was more ready and able to go deep.”
Psilocybin is unpredictable, and it does not always take an individual to the source of their trauma, even if that’s their intention going into the journey. As part of the preparation for this experience, I discuss the importance of surrender and flow with my clients, which requires a great deal of trust on their part. They must trust the medicine, their guide, and themselves in order to be in full acceptance of the unfolding of their journey. My job as a facilitator is to earn their trust through preparation sessions and to explain the medicine in a way that gains their confidence. Additionally, EMDR therapy is an excellent way for them to gain that trust in themselves and their ability to be present with and navigate a traumatic memory.
Limitations of EMDR that Psilocybin can Support
One client of mine, who I’ll refer to as Jamie*, brought up a limitation to her EMDR therapy in our consultation call. While she reported gaining clarity through EMDR and experienced improvements in her mental health, she was regularly troubled by a gap in her memories. Her and her therapist felt this was pointing to a repressed childhood trauma, which they suspected might be unearthed through a psilocybin journey.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Jamie felt the effects of the medicine (3.5 grams of psilocybin) in about twenty minutes, after I led her through a qigong movement practice and standing meditation. I helped her to lay down comfortably with an eye mask and proceeded to lead her through a forty-minute visualization with essential oils. Jamie appeared calm throughout this time, her face muscles relaxed and her breath even. I told her I would stop speaking and give her twenty minutes with nothing but music playing while I sat by her side, so she could explore the space of expanded consciousness without my guidance.
When I checked in twenty minutes later, Jamie explained that the medicine was taking her through memories from childhood. “Remind me to tell my therapist that we need to do EMDR work around middle school time,” she told me. However, she added that none of the memories were capital-T-traumatic. She remarked on how incredibly detailed they were, which was impressive, but she was disappointed that they didn’t seem indicative of the trauma she thought was repressed.
As we discussed previously in our preparation session, Jamie and I decided to move forward with another 1.5 gram serving of medicine so she could deepen into the experience. Jamie made this decision with little trepidation. She was purposeful, yet relaxed, about her intention, and repeatedly said that she felt safe in the space and was ready to surrender to whatever the medicine wanted to show her.
Many people are talkative during this experience, and describe their visions and revelations mediated by the mushrooms, which I record in my notes for us to discuss in integration. Jamie, by contrast, was silent and still for three hours. Her body remained relaxed and her breathing even. It was only in the final thirty minutes when some tears began to trickle from her eye mask. I offered her my hand, which she clasped calmly.
When Jamie pulled the eye mask off, she simply said, “I got clarity on the situation. I’m not ready to talk about it yet… It’s very sad.”
Two days later in our integration session, Jamie was ready to share the memory of an uncovered childhood sexual trauma. While she continued to acknowledge it was very sad, the primary feeling she expressed in integration was relief. Now that she finally filled in the memory, she was confident in her ability to heal, especially by continuing therapy.
Jamie also expressed her appreciation for how the mushrooms unveiled the memory to her. Rather than jarringly dumping her into it, she explained how the medicine brought her through a steady stream of memories, all of which were innocuous: “I see now that these visions were meant to build my trust in the medicine. They were showing me things I knew, but showing me in such precise detail that it just felt so true. I really believed these mushrooms had access to my true childhood memories. Because they built their credibility with me for a while, I was able to believe them when they showed me the trauma.”
Seven months later, Jamie and I have stayed in contact and she continues to view her journey as a positive, breakthrough experience that gave her the clarity she needed to heal. In a recent interview, she reflected on the beneficial interplay of EMDR and psilocybin. In the nine EMDR sessions she did prior to our journey, she realizes,
“EMDR helped me understand how important it was to get to the underlying cause of my trauma. It also helped me to realize how much the memories were stored in my body/tissue.”
This awareness is what motivated her to do the psilocybin journey. Although the EMDR showed her the importance of finding a root cause, that trauma remained elusive through EMDR alone.
When I asked Jamie about the difference between EMDR and psilocybin, she explained:
“The biggest is that with EMDR I often will start to think of other things, almost as a protective mechanism. This makes it difficult for me to stay in the memory of the emotion. This doesn't seem to happen with psilocybin. The protective barriers go away.”
Nevertheless, her EMDR sessions provided an important training ground to encounter her trauma in the journey: “EMDR helped me to be able to go to places that ultimately made me feel uncomfortable in my body, but I was able to go there and sit with that discomfort.”
Ultimately, Jamie, her therapist, and myself are convinced that EMDR was a key modality that allowed Jamie to experience persisting healing from her childhood trauma.
The Future of EMDR and Psilocybin Therapy
This case study illuminates how EMDR therapy can prepare someone for a meaningful psilocybin journey and help them to integrate ongoing therapeutic change afterwards. My experience with Jamie aligns with a recent case study published in EMDR Therapy Quarterly in winter 2023. Interestingly, the participant in this case study actually had an “underwhelming” psychedelic experience, which was very different from Jamie’s profound journey. Nonetheless, the therapist maintained that “psychedelic therapy compliments and amplifies the benefits of EMDR therapy. EMDR was used to explore and integrate psychological material that emerged during the treatment, and the AI and IG protocol adaptions facilitated this.”
With legalization of therapeutic psilocybin on the horizon in California, and, likely, federally by 2025, an increasing number of people are interested in this approach. So it’s important to build bridges between therapists and guides.
While living in Oregon, I benefited immensely from participating in a rich ecosystem of guides, therapists, psychiatric prescribers, medical doctors, and acupuncturists. Our shared clients were happy to sign ROIs so we could coordinate care. This collaborative approach benefits the client, and supports us practitioners in growing together in this pioneering work. Importantly, I think it also encourages each of us to “stay in our lane”, where we can offer our own specific knowledge while also relying upon the different expertise of our colleagues.
Now that Santa Barbara is my home, I’m eager to support the growth of this kind of collaborative community here. To that end, I’ll be hosting gatherings where practitioners can meet in person to discuss specific topics of interest in this growing field. If you’d like to learn more, please send an email to email@example.com
*Jamie is a pseudonym. She was given the final draft to read and the opportunity to edit before approving it for publication.