Tending to Wounds Before Trauma Takes Root
Written By Jennifer Chesak, Psychedelic POV
Recently I fell on wet pavement and skinned my knee while walking to a comedy show. No one ever accused me of being graceful! As is my nature, I dusted off the debris, smoothed my skirt, laughed it off, and carried on.
I sat through the show, blood dripping down my leg, and then eventually cleaned and bandaged my knee when I got home. About a week later, I noticed the wound was growing larger and more inflamed rather than healing. So I hauled myself to urgent care, where a doctor prescribed an antibiotic for a bacterial infection. Another week later, the wound was worse yet. This time I headed to the emergency room, where doctors determined I also had a rapidly spreading fungal infection. Good times, I tell you!
My knee is better now, but the incident staunchly reminded me that when we don’t tend to trauma, it doesn’t go away. Instead, a litany of issues can come back to bite us. My scraped knee is an example of a minor physical trauma that could have turned into a major health issue if I hadn’t addressed it. But we can say the same for our psychological traumas.
Research shows that people who experienced trauma in childhood may be more prone to having metabolic health issues, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and more. That’s because trauma can change our stress response, which is tied to our metabolic health. Trauma in general is associated with many physical and mental health issues.
The good news: we now know that psilocybin has the potential to help reduce the psychological response to trauma. My psilocybin journey was beneficial in reducing the effects of multiple traumas for me, one related to pet care and loss, something we don’t talk about enough as a society. But I want to talk about it in this column.
About two years ago, we had to let go of our dog, Fiver, who had been battling congestive heart failure from a congenital valve defect. He’d gone into kidney failure from his medications—something we knew might happen. So we took him to the vet, knowing we wouldn’t be bringing him back home.
We had received the heart failure diagnosis about two years before his passing. Over those two years, I’d lost hours of sleep dispensing medications in the middle of the night, letting him out to potty frequently, and counting Fiver’s breath rate while I fretted about when the time would come that we’d have to say goodbye. Fiver was my soul mate. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say those two years, and the grief after, were traumatic. But in many ways, that’s exactly what I was doing, lying to myself in the moment.
As is common when we’re in the thick of trauma, we often don’t acknowledge it. We can look back to my minor knee scrape as an example. I was too intent on not ruining the night to tend to the wound. We also often don’t acknowledge trauma after the fact. This was the case for me after losing Fiver. I was relieved, for his sake, that he was no longer dealing with his illness. And although I grieved deeply, I didn’t stop to think about the stress and worry of the past few years. I just soldiered on, throwing myself into my work, as I’m wont to do.
We sometimes ignore trauma because it’s triggering. If we think about our traumas, they bring up fear, anxiety, depression, and more. So we avoid them. In the altered state of consciousness that psychedelics induce, however, we can view trauma with a filtered lens that protects us from those triggers. Researcher Gregor Hasler, MD, calls this the “helioscope effect” of psychedelics. A helioscope is an instrument scientists use to safely look at the sun. Well, when we’re on a psychedelic, we view trauma through a safe lens as well, often seeing it with more detail but without the overwhelming triggers. This can allow us to reprocess our trauma and reduce the psychological effects of it.
During my own psilocybin experience, I was able to think about the years of palliative care with Fiver and acknowledge that they were tough and traumatic and that the loss was devastating. But I was also able to find true peace in this great loss, gratitude for every moment I got to spend with my best bud, and even gratitude for the whole experience. Instead of avoidance of the trauma, I’m now able to lean into all my feelings related to everything that transpired. And I’m OK.
I’m better than OK, actually. I still get a thickness in my throat and a welling behind my eyelids when I think about Fiver, but those symptoms are always followed by immense joy in knowing I got to have him in my life, in thinking about memories of him, and in knowing that he is not really gone but instead is always a part of me. Psilocybin, and the work I’ve done with this plant medicine, has turned the pain into feelings that fuel me rather than deplete me.
We have many tools available to us to tackle trauma, from therapy, meditation, and various forms of self-care to—you guessed it—psychedelics. The bottom line is that we indeed need to tackle our traumas—big and small—in some way. And sooner rather than later—lest those traumas fester, a la my scraped knee. The knee incident also reminded me that healing isn’t necessarily linear. Some days our wounds will feel worse. But that’s a reason to stop and take stock of one’s emotions, rather than shoving them down where they undoubtedly will gnaw at you.
Woomersly JS, et al. Childhood trauma, the stress response and metabolic syndrome: A focus on DNA methylation. Eur J. Neurosci. 2022 May;55(9-10):2253-2296, https://doi.org/10.1111/ejn.15370
Card KG, et al. Therapeutic potential of psilocybin for treating psychological distress among survivors of adverse childhood experiences: evidence on acceptability and potential efficacy of psilocybin use. J. Psychoactive Drugs. 2023 Oct 10:1-11, https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2023.2268640
Hasler G. Toward the “helioscope” hypothesis of psychedelic therapy. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2022 Apr:57:118-119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.euroneuro.2022.02.006