Trauma-Informed Principles in Plant Medicine
Fifteen years ago, in my first ever plant medicine ceremony, I was sexually assaulted by a so-called shaman, a man from France. Fortunately, in my vulnerability, I was able to say “no”, told him that I had a boyfriend, and pushed him away. His reply to this was: “So what? I have a girlfriend too, and she will never know.” I said no again, and he left me alone. This unfortunate incident laid the foundations of an inquiry into a new paradigm for trauma-informed practices within indigenous plant medicine traditions.
Plant Medicines can be an effective healing modality to help trauma survivors find resolution from traumatic experiences. They can help to recalibrate the nervous system, change neuro-receptors in the brain, connect to different dimensions of life, release blocked energies, and gain an understanding of the spiritual realms and our life purpose. However, some Plant Medicine ceremonies and experiences can also be triggering, re-traumatizing, and potentially cause more harm for individuals if not attended to with understanding and care. Some people possess the inner resources to process the experience of medicine in a titrated way. However, those who have suffered more complex forms of trauma do not have these internal resources and are at risk of re-traumatization.
In my time working as a specialist trauma therapist at AYA Healing Retreats and other Ayahuasca centers over for the past three years, I have carefully studied and mapped the integration process and healing of many brave and courageous individuals.
Integration is a crucial part of the plant medicine healing journey, yet it is often overlooked.
Unfortunately, integration, preparation and trauma care, in an unregulated sacred medicine culture, is perceived at best, an add-on. There are many elements of trauma recovery, which are essential in the healing journey, and there are times where plant medicine is simply not enough for integration and recovery. Finding resolution and recovery from traumatic experiences, mostly cumulative traumatic experiences, takes time, effort, specialized care, support and persistence. Those who come to the medicine to seek healing from traumatic experiences need to be held with tenderness, empathy, attunement, care and the understanding and education of the neurobiology and science of trauma healing. This is where a new account and structure of integration and mental health care is imperative.
The lack of mental health awareness translates into ceremonial spaces. As a mental health professional and a trauma survivor, I would confidently say that mental health is one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized issues plaguing the world. In the western world, there are many different types of traumatic experiences out there, including peri-natal trauma to attachment trauma, from sexual abuse to developmental trauma, from high-velocity accidents to medical procedures. There are severe types of trauma classifications, from PTSD to C-PTSD, chronic anxiety, and depression, personality disorders such as Borderline, and more. These classifications need to be brought to awareness when facilitating healing spaces.
My interest in trauma-informed Ayahuasca integration was roused after witnessing, through my plant medicine journey, the absence of trauma-informed group facilitators. After my unfortunate experience, I was also particularly cautious of the sacred spaces that were held. It was not uncommon for me to witness someone undergoing a profoundly cathartic experience or becoming overwhelmed in the ceremony, and for the facilitator to diminish the magnitude of the event. In observing these facilitators through my lens as a trauma-informed clinician, I have witnessed individuals leave retreat or ceremonial spaces ungrounded, disoriented, re-triggered and re-traumatized, stuck on a “freeze” response for months, disassociated, and reliving flashbacks of traumatic memories for weeks after. I’m saying that this is not ok. Facilitators have a duty of care with the use of plant medicine and healing trauma.
Sacred medicine has such profound potential to change lives for the better. However, it has become difficult for participants to place their faith and trust in an industry where a trauma-informed approach toward ceremony care, pre-ceremony screening and preparation, and post-integration is unavailable. Unlike many other therapeutic professions, such as counseling and psychology, no code of ethics governs or regulates the facilitation of sacred medicine experiences. The absence of a code of ethics or regulatory board means that questions related to consent, touch and confidentiality in the context of a sacred medicine experience are not being discussed. It also means not only are there any formal training or qualification requirements but that facilitators are not held accountable by a legal duty of care to their participants. Aware of this gap, Elio and I have created a set of objectives to promote trauma-informed plant medicine facilitation.
AYA Healing Retreats have developed the Trauma-Informed Plant Medicine Facilitation Workshop to promote trauma-informed care in ceremonial spaces. This training encourages trauma and mental health awareness, the application of trauma-informed support during, and after ceremonies, and a set of principles underpinning trauma-informed plant medicine facilitation.
We believe healing is not a one size fits all, and that a trauma-informed approach toward ceremony care, pre-ceremony screening and preparation, and post-integration is essential. We propose a framework using contemporary Western trauma recovery approaches, specifically with Somatic Experiencing, to offer comprehensive mental health treatment plans for those who have come to heal from PTSD and C-PTSD. This involves the development of holistic, integrated, trauma-informed treatment plans, with a trained trauma therapist, to support sustainable healing to take place. We do this because we both believe that every person deserves the right to heal in non-traumatic, safe space, with the highest quality and standard of mental health care.
We intend to support plant medicine facilitators to become trauma-informed. This enables them to support their participants to build their resiliency, establish greater self-regulation in resolving the trauma, to help them to feel safe, supported, heard, empathized and attuned to, with a choice and agency to prevent re-traumatization from occurring. Trauma-informed means that we understand how trauma affects the nervous system and therefore, we are sensitive to assume that all participants in the ceremonial space have experienced trauma.
According to Bessel A. van der Kolk (2014) “The memory of trauma is imprinted on the human organism. I don’t think you can overcome it unless you learn to have a friendly relationship with your body. Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
We, therefore, respond to participants to consider these experiences and provide support by building the safety and orientation to the present.
We are committed to researching, inquiring, and developing a code of conduct and ethics to understand the best and safest practices for trauma-informed facilitation in plant medicine ceremonies. We have developed a set of principles that underpin trauma-informed facilitation.
Principles of Trauma-Informed Plant Medicine Facilitation
• We assume that anyone walking into the PM space may have experienced trauma, and we treat them with the care, attunement, sensitivity, and therapeutic presence that is needed.
• We recognize participants as experts on their bodies and experiences and refrain from giving unsolicited advice which may belittle their experiences and feelings.
• We aim to create a safe, comfortable space that is empowering for all participants, and provide them support structures systems before, during and after the PM experience.
• We strive to offer options and modifications for being in the ceremonial event where the person’s comfort, ease and safety is of utmost importance.
• We use trauma-sensitive language that is attuned, strength-based, acknowledging and empathic of the participant’s experience while listening for resources as it comes up in the person’s body language or experience.
• We refrain from rigid, dismissive, “spiritual bypassing” analysis & “spiritualizing” statements and advice; instead, we listen more than we speak, using the language of inquiry, empathy and reflection.
• We are aware of our professional role as an authority figure in PM work, and uphold professional boundaries with our participants. We understand the importance of safety, consent, boundaries and refrain from “hands-on assists” or apply them cautiously if we do use them.
• We may share ways of self-regulate and clearly explain the guidelines of support that can facilitate calmness and stabilization for our participants before, during and after the PM experience.
• We ALWAYS give participants a choice and promote their sense of agency and inner wisdom and knowing. We support our participants to uphold healthy boundaries with us as facilitators and the community around them, and we do not, in any way, force an experience on them. (e.g. pressure them to drink a big cup of medicine when seeing the tentativeness in their body language).
At AYA Healing Retreats, we believe that everybody and human deserve the right to feel safe and to heal in non-traumatic, super safe spaces, with the highest quality and standard of mental health care carefully and thoughtfully considered. We hope that we can continue to support the safety of those who courageously seek healing by spreading awareness of the importance of trauma-informed modalities with the traditions of ancient shamanism.
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