This article by Haley Noble was originally published on Reality Sandwich, and appears here with permission.
South American indigenous cultures benefit from their ancient healing traditions surrounding plant medicines like ayahuasca. As more research explores ayahuasca as a tool to mitigate suffering, future generations may have the ability to harness ancestral psychedelic therapy to transform their cultural and familial wounds. Traditional Amazonian practices operate with an entirely different set of principles than westernized medicine. In the journey towards understanding the spectrum of ayahuasca benefits, highlighting indigenous teaching provides a perspective rich in generational and environmental wisdom. Let’s start out by looking at the current understanding of ancestral trauma and psychedelic therapy using ayahuasca.
WHAT IS ANCESTRAL TRAUMA?
Ancestral trauma — sometimes referred to as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma — addresses how chronic generational stressors alter genetic processing and can perpetuate cycles of suffering in families and individuals. Due to the history of systematic exploitation, discrimination and abuse of different groups, certain populations are particularly susceptible to ancestral trauma.
The study of generational suffering is relatively new. Built on the foundations of a 1988 study, researchers found that the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were overrepresented by 300% in psychiatric care referrals. To date, Holocaust survivors and their descendants are the most widely studied group of people affected by the abuse inflicted upon their ancestors. By extension, any group suffering prolonged systemic stress can suffer from intergenerational trauma. Ancestral healing can help anyone, not just those in marginalized groups: domestic violence, sexual abuse and any drawn-out stress can all influence people’s likelihood for intergenerational suffering.
People living with the effects of ancestral trauma can experience hypervigilance, distrust, high anxiety, panic, and issues with self-esteem and relationships. Not only does this detract from their quality of life but it continues the overactivation of the neural pathways and further solidifies behavioral patterns. Let’s explore what’s going on neurologically.
TRAUMA AND THE BRAIN
When someone undergoes a traumatic event, the areas of the brain involved — the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — are permanently altered. The physiological changes resulting from trauma affect the way the body responds to any future events that trigger the stress response. The overactivation of the body’s central nervous system can result in higher chances of autoimmune disease and mental health disorder diagnosis.
The over-activation of the immune system causes the microglial cells responsible for removing damaged neurons and infections, to instead begin eating away at healthy nerve endings. Researchers see this microglial behavior in patients suffering from dementia, depression and anxiety.
One of the brain’s strategies to cope with trauma is dissociating. Dissociation occurs on a spectrum, but largely is the separation of the mind and the physical body. People dissociate in their daily life in positive or neutral ways, like when driving or in the middle of creative flow, but when a traumatic event occurs the dissociation can be much stronger. In the middle of chaos, dissociating allows people to take themselves somewhere else. The overactivation of the brain overwhelms the central nervous system and by dissociating people can protect themselves from the unbearable experience. However, a disordered activation of the dissociative neural pathway can cause people to dissociate when the danger is no longer present. Though dissociation can be a coping mechanism, for people with trauma the instinct to disconnect can be maladaptive when hyperactive.
Dissociation is a common coping mechanism for children. Children are powerless to their environments and sometimes their only choice is to take themselves away from potentially upsetting stimuli by dissociating. When a child is forced to habitually separate themselves from their physical being they unconsciously repress memories and sensations. Sometimes people will have large gaps in their childhood memory and hold young emotional wounds in their physical bodies well into adulthood. This sort of protective neural pattern presents in people dealing with ancestral trauma. When the parents are still bearing the weight of their parent’s suffering, the children often inherit the same patterns both genetically and behaviorally.
The combination of these neurological processes can result in genetic changes that get passed down to future generations and perpetuate cycles of disease and dysfunction.
Ayahuasca is uniquely well suited for addressing ancestral trauma because its foundations lie in the ancient wisdom and reverence for generational understanding. European colonizers decimated native populations in South and Central America and threatened to eradicate indigenous cultures and teachings.
Part of the healing process for indigenous groups is their relationship to ayahuasca and its ability to connect them with the same ancient traditions that colonization threatened to eradicate.
Populations that have suffered genocides may never know the specificities of their lineage, amidst an ayahuasca ceremony the ability to reconnect with the divine source connecting all beings can promote intergenerational connection. Even for groups without legacies of systematic abuse, ayahuasca can help them connect with lost relatives or reprocess fractured relationships.
Recounting the intricacies of an ayahuasca vision is a challenge as it is largely indescribable. However, participants of ayahuasca ceremonies commonly report recalling a flood of lost memories, especially ones from childhood. For people with childhood dissociation, being able to fill empty spaces in their psyche with a perspective free from fear can heal wounds otherwise left festering.
Ayahuasca may also help people recontextualize their childhood experiences: reconnecting them to past generations through ayahuasca’s mystical and connective spirit. Without understanding the nuanced stories of older generations, children are not able to learn from their parent’s triumphs and mistakes, and therefore unable to understand why their suffering continues.
To better understand why ayahuasca is a vehicle for intergenerational healing, let’s look at what’s going on neurologically.
Ayahuasca and the Brain
New research investigates whether ayahuasca heals traumatic memories through the interaction between sigma 1 receptors and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. DMT, one of the psychoactive alkaloids in ayahuasca, activates the sigma 1 receptor, SIGMAR1. SIGMAR1 is a dynamic receptor that responds to the brain’s stress signals by promoting neural plasticity and — with the help of the brain’s immune system — protecting neural cells.
Ayahuasca brews also contain monoamine oxidase inhibitors, enzymes that break down neurotransmitters in the brain. These inhibitors slow down the brain’s ability to degrade DMT, allowing it to make its way through the blood-brain barrier and activate a plethora of serotonin receptors.
Research hypothesizes that ayahuasca’s hyperactivation of trauma memory centers and the interplay of SIGMAR1 and monoamine oxidase inhibitors bring repressed memories to the surface. While under the influence of ayahuasca’s active alkaloids, people can reprocess these forgotten hardships and reprogram their brain’s learned fear responses.
Ayahuasca’s ability to activate this neuroprotective protein and keep DMT from degrading may explain how this psychoactive brew reverses memory deficits and allows people to engage with unprocessed trauma.
The first step for people seeking to heal ancestral trauma is recognizing the echoes of the past in their present-day patterns of behavior. It can be uncomfortable to reckon with emotional family heirlooms that cause pain in day-to-day lives and perpetuate cycles of toxicity, abuse or strained relationships. If ayahuasca’s wisdom shows anything, it is that through engaging with repressed memories, purging blockages and allowing the brain to reprocess — healing is possible.
Ancestral trauma can be a challenging subject for many. If you are comfortable we would love to hear your thoughts on how ayahuasca can benefit people on their journey towards healing. If psychedelic content is your cup of tea, make sure you subscribe to our newsletter.