Dealing with Depression

Dear Rachel,

The last time I was in a ceremony, I was still in the experience when everyone else had come down. The shaman left and people were falling asleep. I was sitting up trying to maintain my awareness but I began to worry that I'd never come down. I got more and more anxious and the whole night became about my anxiety.

– Still worried,

Dear Michael:

I want you to know that I have heard this story before, more than once. People metabolize the medicine at different rates and can be on different schedules during the same ceremony. Some have noticed that if they fast for a longer time before the ceremony, they're more likely to take off and land in sync with others.

The thought that I'll never come down, that this will last forever, that I'll go crazy is one of the most common fears with any psychedelic. Be prepared to reassure yourself: this too shall pass. I will come down.

Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?” I know that may sound impossible to do in the moment but if you prepare ahead of time to ask this in any difficult situation, you'll be able to do it.

Ask Grandmother Ayahuasca or the plants or the shaman's lineage for help, support and protection.

Don't resist. Accept your fears. Welcome them—they're part of your wiring. This is probably not the first time you've experienced anxiety and this is not a good time to try to change this pattern. 

Resisting anxiety—“I don't want to feel this way. When will this end? Please stop!”—is like adding fuel to a fire. If you find yourself doing this, accept your resistance. Welcome your resistance. Be kind to yourself. This shift will interrupt the gr p of resisting what is.

In the same way, notice and accept any catastrophic thoughts which are usually about the future—“I'm going crazy. This will never end. My brain is fried.” Take a Vipassana approach and label your thoughts to create distance and objectivity. Right now, I am catastrophizing. Remember, you are not your thoughts. This will interrupt the grip of catastrophic thinking.

Embrace all of who you are in this moment. Talk to yourself as you would a frightened child. Be a calm, kind, loving parent to yourself. Tuck yourself into sleeping bag or whatever covers you have. Snuggle in. You don't need to heroically remain upright.

Anxiety can cascade, leading to more anxiety, leading to a panic attack. That's a different question and we can focus on that another time.

But the same techniques can be used in both situations. Breathe slowly, slowly. Distract yourself with thinking exercises that activate and engage a different part of your brain—Some people count by 7s. Others think of categories like types of dogs, sports teams, songs. Think of something you're looking forward to that will be soothing like a bubble bath, a massage, a run on the beach.

And remind yourself, this too shall pass.

A few days after the ceremony, when you feel calm and secure, reflect on the role anxiety plays in your life. How big an issue is this for you? Notice what things you say to yourself that increase your anxiety. Write them all down. Yes, ALL of them. Give yourself a week to keep adding to that list. After you feel the list is complete, read it over to yourself. Search for themes. Make a new list of three to five sentences that capture the major themes.

Then notice whenever your inner critic repeats these themes to you. Recognize them as one of your favorite categories. Develop a gallows humor about the inevitability of your inner critic. Think about the source of the theme—Did someone say this to you? In what situation?

Insights into the source of the theme or how I learned to give this particular message to myself opens up a great opportunity in psychotherapy. These kinds of questions will inevitably lead us back into our childhood and family of origin history. A good therapist can help us clear out this kind of early programming and make peace with our fears.