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Ego Death: Is This What Psychedelic Therapy is Really All About?

Ego Death: Is This What Psychedelic Therapy is Really All About?

Ego death is one of the key aspects of a psychedelic mystical experience. Many psychonauts chase this state of consciousness, believing it to offer transformative, life-changing, and therapeutic results. Indeed, amongst those who have experienced ego death, it is common to find such people describe the experience as one of the most profound and meaningful moments in their life while also offering long-term benefits.

Psychedelic therapy typically involves a high dose of a psychedelic, capable of inducing a mystical experience and, in turn, ego death. Both classic and non-classic psychedelics can induce ego death, including the following.

But is ego death the most important result of psychedelic therapy?

This article will detail what ego death is and explain why it is not necessarily the only critical part of psychedelic therapy. There are researchers who have found that other aspects of the psychedelic experience are also linked to improvements in mental well-being.

Exciting news: Oregon is legalizing Psilocybin therapy in early 2023. Click here to get on the waiting list for the first state-approved psilocybin therapy in the United States now!

What Is The Ego?

Our ego is our sense of who we are or what we are like as a person. In normal, everyday consciousness, we walk around with an idea of being a distinct “me”, which includes a certain cluster of traits that constitutes this ego.

The Three Components Of The Ego

We can think of the ego as three components.

  • Self-Image. The view an individual holds of themselves
  • Self-Esteem. How much value an individual places on themselves
  • Self-Identity. The many beliefs, opinions, ideologies, and affiliations that an individual holds

The ego (or sense of self) can affect our thoughts and feelings both in the moment and in our memories, as well as impact the way we behave. The ego is a gatekeeper in some ways, only letting in thoughts that conform to our self-image.

If you have an overly negative self-image or very low self-esteem, this can lead to various issues in your life, affecting your mental health and your relationships. Your ego can put up boundaries that make you feel disconnected from yourself and others.

What Is Ego Death?

Ego death (or ego dissolution) refers to the sense of losing your subjective personal identity. Some people prefer to use the term ego dissolution as the word “death” carries negative connotations, such as darkness and sadness. Ego death, therefore, and may sound like a frightening experience. But it doesn’t have to be.

According to Dr. Jonathann Kuo, Chief Medical Officer of Hudson Mind in New York City, “Ego is our self-defined ‘self,’ and is both who we perceive ourselves to be, and how we think the world perceives us. Ego death is a deep dissociation and separation from our ‘default-settings’ that we impose on ourselves, and that releases the physical world from the mental world. The subconscious opens up to our consciousness, allowing it to be explored.”

Ego death is a temporary experience. Whether you experience it through psychedelics or some other means, the experience does not last very long. When it occurs during a psychedelic journey, it will tend to occur at the peak, when the effects of the drug are the most intense.

“Ego death is an opportunity, described in both Eastern and Western philosophies,” continues Dr. Kuo, “and is often the “gateway” to ending self-suffering and being reborn.”

It is also possible for people to experience multiple ego deaths during one psychedelic session, losing their sense of self, regaining it, and then losing it again.

When the psychedelic experience is over, your ego will return. However, it may be changed.

Ego Death Can Be Pleasant Or Unpleasant (Or Both)

Ego death can be a pleasant or unpleasant experience, or contain a mix of both positive and negative emotions. For many people, losing their ego is accompanied by feelings of bliss, joy, ecstasy, peace, and contentment. This is because the ego is often a kind of burden we carry around with us, negatively affecting our lives. To lose it, therefore, can be extremely relieving.

On the other hand, our ego acts as an anchor in the world. So when you lose it or feel yourself beginning to lose it, this drastic change can feel unnerving and destabilizing. During ego death, it is not uncommon for people to experience fear, anxiety, dread, panic, and resistance. As with other aspects of the psychedelic experience, ego death can be terrifying if you do not accept what is happening.

Why Ego Death Feels Like Dying

Sometimes, ego death may feel like you’re actually dying. This is understandable. If your ego dissolves, you can forget all your memories, including your name, where you live, things you’ve experienced, the people you know, and the awareness of having taken a drug.

You will still have some awareness during ego death, which some users may call “pure awareness”, but losing your memories and concepts can still carry a feeling of “dying” in some way. This feeling may be especially intense if you have an out-of-body experience (OBE) at the same time. An OBE can make you feel like your awareness has disconnected from your body.

RELATED: What Is The Psychedelic Therapy Container – And Why Is It Important?

Ego Death And The Mystical Experience

Ego death ties closely to the experience of unity, oneness, or interconnectedness that characterizes the mystical experience. This is a feeling of becoming one with all that exists. This kind of experience or view of the nature of reality is in many mystical and religious traditions. When people experience it firsthand, it can completely change their beliefs about themselves and reality.

For some people, an ego death experience leaves them with the belief that the self is an illusion. In other words, they feel that the entire universe has a connection, or that consciousness can transcend physical death.

As well as ego death and unity, there are other dimensions of the mystical experience, including the below.

  • Sacredness. A sense that what you encounter during the experience is holy or sacred
  • Noetic Quality. The experience is imbued with an aspect of meaning and a sense of encountering ultimate reality, which is felt to be “more real than real”
  • Deeply Felt Positive Mood. Joy, ecstasy, peace, gentleness, tranquility, awe
  • Ineffability. The experience is difficult or impossible to put into words
  • Paradoxicality. To explain the experience, you have to use mutually exclusive concepts (e.g. becoming nothing and everything at the same time)
  • Transcendence Of Time and Space. Traditional notions of time and space lose their meaning

RELATED: Opinion: Current Psychedelic Therapies Use Flawed Models of the Mind – It’s Time for Relational Therapy

The Therapeutic Benefits Of Ego Death

Researchers from Imperial College London have found that the mystical experience drives the efficacy of psychedelic therapy. Patients with depression who showed the greatest improvements in their symptoms were those who had a mystical experience. Indeed, there is a significant association between the feeling of unity and oneness (which occurs during ego death) and a reduction in depressive symptoms.

So, how important is ego death in a psychedelic experience? According to Dr. Alexander Lebedev of Katharsis Journeys in the Netherlands, “Current research points to the importance of spiritual or, as some may call it, “mystical-type” experiences for positive outcomes of psychedelic-assisted treatments. Seminal studies by Walter Pahnke on phenomenology of these experiences identified dissolution of self-boundaries (of which “ego death” is an extreme example) as one of their hallmarks. In that regard, it can be considered important.”

“And there are some studies explicitly pointing to this,” continues Dr. Lebedev. “However, I would not go as far as saying that “ego dissolution” is among the most important factors influencing positive outcomes. Ultimately, what matters is the depth of emotional breakthrough, personal meaning and, finally, how the acquired insights can be incorporated into one’s life. To what extent factors of the environment, careful preparation and active integration interact with what happens over the course of the psychedelic-assisted interventions is yet to be clarified.”

A study from Johns Hopkins University similarly discovers that smoking cessation outcomes were strongly correlated with measures of mystical experience.

“Ego death can be very important depending on where you are on your healing journey at the time. It’s not something you can expect to experience immediately, it takes time to get to this level of healing, says Dr. Yvonka De Ridder, co-owner and founder of Loving Life Today in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida.

The psychedelic researcher Stan Grof argued in LSD Psychotherapy (1980) that “ego death and … loss of boundaries between the subject and the objective world, with ensuing feelings of unity” is of great therapeutic benefit. This was based on his extensive research into the effects of LSD-assisted psychotherapy.

RELATED: Study Suggests Psychedelics May Help With Healing Childhood Trauma

What This Means During A Psychedelic Journey

Ego death during a psychedelic trip may be therapeutic for different reasons.

“Ego death, or the loss of a subjective sense of self, is not an important factor in the clinical efficacy of ketamine for the treatment of depression,” says Dr. Martha Koo, MD of Neuro Wellness Spa in Southern California. “There is evidence that using a ketamine dose that creates a dissociative experience, a sense of being separated from one’s body, is important in efficacy.”

For example, the dissolution of the ego can allow an individual to view their sense of self differently. When the experience is over, a user may be left with the notion that their negative and limiting sense of self is illusory and not essential to who they are. This can be a great relief.

Moreover, an ego death experience may lead an individual to enlarge their sense of self and incorporate more aspects into it, including the environment and others. And we know that feeling more connected to nature and other people leads to improvements in mental health.

However, ego death may not always be therapeutic. There is some evidence that struggling for a long time during a psychedelic experience can lead to enduring negative outcomes. It’s worth noting, though, that this relates to the unsupervised use of psychedelics. Researchers believe that the risk of enduring psychological distress is extremely low when psychedelics are given in a controlled setting, with participants screened, prepared, and supported.

If you decide to engage in psychedelic therapy and you struggle with ego death during the experience, you will receive psychological support that you would lack outside of this clinical context.

Other Aspects Of Psychedelic Therapy Can Improve Mental Well-Being

Ego death and the mystical experience are not the only parts of psychedelic therapy that can improve mental health conditions like depression. Other features of the treatment can benefit people’s mental health.

For instance, research from Imperial College London suggests that psilocybin can relieve the symptoms of depression by reconnecting depressed patients with their emotions. This contrasts with the effects of antidepressants, which can dampen one’s emotions. This dampening may be helpful by lessening the intensity of negative emotions but it has the possible effect of dulling positive emotions too. Leor Roseman, an author of this study and part of Imperial’s Psychedelic Research Group, said the below.

“Our findings are important as they reveal biological changes after psilocybin therapy and, more specifically, they suggest that increased emotional processing is crucial for the treatment to work.”

Another study from Roseman and other Imperial researchers finds that emotional breakthroughs during psychedelic journeys often lead to sustained increases in mental well-being. These emotional breakthroughs consisted of experiences like facing emotionally difficult feelings one usually avoids and getting a sense of closure of an emotional problem. Roseman told PsyPost:

“Besides mystical-type experiences and emotional breakthrough, there are other experiences that mediate long term changes, such as cognitive insights, the connection with the therapists, and so on. These are not quantified yet, and it is good to know that psychedelic therapy is not just about peak or cathartic experiences (the ones that are quantified), but it is much broader than this and can be quite unexpected sometimes.”

So while ego death and mystical experiences may be an important result of psychedelic therapy, it may not be necessary to see improvements in people’s mental health. Indeed, many people report that psychedelics help to improve their well-being, even if they didn’t experience ego death.

Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

Abid Nazeer

This post was medically approved by Abid Nazeer

Dr. Nazeer is the Founder and President of APS Ketamine/Advanced Psychiatric Solutions, which he established in 2016 as the first psychiatric outpatient ketamine clinic in Illinois. He is board certified in Psychiatry as well as Addiction Medicine. He completed his psychiatry residency at Louisiana State University Health Sciences in Shreveport where he held the role of Chief Resident. Dr. Nazeer is providing medical oversight to the growth plan of Wesana Clinics, with the model of comprehensive psychiatry clinics specialized ketamine and psychedelic therapies, integrated brain health and wellness centers, and technology utilization of Wesana Solutions remote patient monitoring product.

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