Can Ibogaine Treat Emotional Trauma?
Maggie had been in and out of therapy since she was 12, when her sister committed suicide at 19. Plagued with constant anxiety, she saw ten different therapists over the course of nearly three decades. It helped, but the trauma wasn’t fully resolved. She settled for thinking she was as healed as she’d ever be.
After her father died of COVID-related complications earlier this year, Maggie suffered her first nervous breakdown. “I couldn’t control my physiological response to pain. I had to take pills to sleep and stay calm.”
She felt responsible, like she did when her sister died, as though she’d failed to save them. “It was a protective mechanism,” Maggie explains. “A savior complex where I was always doing everything to take care of others, but not me. It’s a strong position for the ego to take, thinking you can save or fix everyone else’s lives.” Despite knowing this intellectually at the time, it didn’t stop her from feeling chronic anxiety and guilt.
A childhood friend, now a grief counselor, suggested she look into ibogaine, a psychedelic treatment option that has become increasingly used to address depression and trauma. Maggie had limited experience with psychedelics – she’d experimented with ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms – but talk therapy alone was not working for her, and her intuition told her this plant medicine might help. This past April, she headed down to Cancun to try this treatment at Beond, a premium ibogaine therapy facility offering a multi-phase delivery model, in the hopes that she would finally find inner peace.
Can Ibogaine Help Treat Trauma?
Ibogaine has made headlines for its high success rate in treating opioid addiction. While this is largely due to its ability to “reset” the brain to its pre-addicted state, the profound inner voyage it induces is also integral to the healing process, and there is increasing evidence that it can be an effective therapeutic treatment for mental health issues like PTSD and depression.
Mental health conditions like depression or PTSD may leave one mired in belief systems and thoughts that “aren’t entirely accurate,” explains Lynnette Averill, an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine and clinical research psychologist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Particularly with PTSD, people often experience a lot of guilt, shame, and take blame for things that aren’t theirs to take blame for.”
Neurobiologically, ibogaine offers a “hard reset” from these beliefs by targeting “multiple neurochemical systems at once in a very rapid and robust fashion,” says Averill. It also allows the patient to emotionally and cognitively process root causes behind their trauma, which is where we see a lot of this treatment’s benefit, she says. Individuals who undergo ibogaine treatment commonly report experiencing a “30,000 foot view of their life and sometimes that of their ancestors.”
“Thinking about ourselves as a tiny part of something so much bigger can serve the purpose of grounding us in what the important things are for our lives, as members of our families, our communities, and even of the species,” says Averill.
Dr. Joseph Barsuglia, a clinical and research psychologist with expertise in ibogaine, likens the ibogaine experience to a “dreamlike state.”
”Dreams are where we process our subconscious mind and work out conflict,” says Barsuglia. “It connects you to your own intelligence so you can heal yourself.”
During the ibogaine treatment, Maggie came in contact with different versions of herself: her ideal self, her worst self, and even her eternal self, a vision of who she’d be beyond death. She was surprised at the lack of shame or self-criticism she felt when facing what she considered to be her “worst” self. “I did not feel in any way defensive, ashamed or embarrassed by it. I realized that is who I am when love is not present.”
From there, she watched a montage of childhood memories, revealing root causes of her trauma that predated her sister’s suicide, going back to childhood.
“Ibogaine works in the brain in a more unique way than most psychedelics,” explains Barsuglia, who serves as an advisor to Beond. “It appears to go through your memory database, like a Rolodex of difficult experiences you’ve had that you haven’t metabolized psychologically.” This “life review,” as it’s commonly called, helps the patient confront what they’re running from, so they can evolve past it.
As Maggie observed these core memories unfold, she witnessed more versions of herself throughout her childhood. “I comforted all those parts of me that felt misunderstood, unloved, not taken care of – and I became their parent.”
The Role of Talk Therapy in Ibogaine Treatment
Maggie was well equipped for helping her child self process pain. In the week before her treatment, Maggie had daily talk therapy sessions with a Beond therapist, who helped her prepare by setting intentions and establishing a framework for the experience. “This was work I had done in therapy the week before,” she says. “I knew what to do with the experience.”
Beond offers a 5-phase treatment delivery model called “Insight Oriented Ibogaine” that includes a preparation stage, pre-treatment protocols, the treatment itself, and an aftercare plan for post-treatment and long-term to support the patient in their journey. After completing initial comprehensive medical screening procedures, patients engage in daily hour-long sessions with a therapist to set intentions and work through any fears and concerns they may have about their treatment.After treatment, the patient completes a minimum of two integration sessions with Beond’s psychology team, and maintains contact with the clinic in the months following their stay to evaluate and advance their progress.
“Therapy is a critical piece for ibogaine treatment,” says Averill. It’s a time to set intentions and address significant fears before going into treatment. “It helps them feel grounded and safe.” Therapy after is just as crucial. Ibogaine treatment can be challenging, and a third party perspective can help the patient process and understand what they experienced, she says.
Averill stresses that ibogaine treatment isn’t a magic bullet. “It’s not as though you have this experience and you never need to worry about [your problems] again,” she says. “Ibogaine provides a foundation from which there’s a sudden shift, an opportunity that people can then build on. But they have to do the work of continuing to build, continuing the integration work and building healthy habits.”
How Does Ibogaine Affect the Brain?
Ibogaine afforded Maggie stunning clarity about the underlying source of her trauma, illuminating the origin of the behaviors and coping mechanisms she’d developed throughout the years in response to her pain. “All the decisions I’d made to protect myself from further suffering became so obvious, it was easy to let them go.”
Recent research is helping to explain the physiological mechanisms behind the treatment’s success. “Ibogaine seems to increase blood flow to deep brain structures that are emotional centers,” explains Barsuglia. “Some literature suggests that those parts of the brain are where we hold some of our deepest pain and the roots of trauma. Ibogaine increases communication with these more primitive and preverbal parts of the brain so deeper issues can be brought into consciousness and processed.”
Averill feels that further research into ibogaine may tell us more about its effects on the default mode network, the part of our brain that’s most active when someone isn’t focusing on any one thing in particular. For someone with PTSD, their default mode network tends to be restless and hypervigilant, “running at 300 miles an hour” with intrusive thoughts, she says. “Research has shown that psilocybin quiets that. I think something similar would be found with ibogaine.”
After her treatment, Maggie felt a profound sense of peace. “I never thought it was possible,” she says. Her mind’s nervous, incessant chatter has quieted. Instead of being easily triggered by external stimuli, she now has “complete autonomy” over how she responds to things. Coping mechanisms she used to rely on to numb anxiety, like finding the perfect meal, no longer have the same hold on her. And she’s lost the compulsion to solve other people’s problems for them.
Maggie marvels at the “brilliance” of the plant, which went right to the root causes of her trauma, and overrode firmly entrenched pathways in her brain, clearing space for new behaviors and perspectives. The experience left her feeling securely anchored in her newfound peace, with a comprehensive understanding of her life’s story.
“For many people, it is a very powerful and meaningful thing to step back and explore what led us to this moment. How did we get to where we are now? What are the aspects that we want to move forward with, and what is not serving us?” says Averill. “We don’t exist in a vacuum. We are shaped by the things we were taught about how to interact with the world, and how to cope with stress and trauma.”
“Ibogaine showed me the landscape of my entire life in a very specific way. It’s like being in a haunted house, and someone turns the lights on, so you can see the mechanisms behind how everything works,” says Maggie. “I know, and can feel, where my peace is grounded.”
Image: Nicki Adams