Dr. Victoria Sterkin is a behavior analyst focused on therapeutic learning with individuals, couples, families and organizations. Rome Shadanloo is a psychedelic therapist specializing in complex PTSD and attachment injury. Together, they are the co-owners of Mycology Psychology – an alternative health community empowering people to heal themselves through the intelligence of nature.
Vivian Kanchian: To start off… Victoria, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and share what a behavioral analyst does for those who may not be familiar?
Dr. Victoria Sterkin: Sure, yeah. I’ll start with what a behavior analyst does. Behavior analysis is the science of learning and so, it’s a newer school of psychology. It’s more of a harder science of the soft sciences because behavior analysts study observable behavior. And then there’s the school of radical behaviorists that believe in the behaviors that are unseen beneath the skin, so thoughts and emotions become lumped into that category.
When I was studying applied behavior analysis at Columbia during my doctorate, I was working predominantly with children and adolescents. I found it to be so powerful in terms of the speed and efficiency at which we can really create behavior change and change patterns in people’s behavior.
We typically think of behavior as going, “Do this, good job, here’s the M&M.” But really what it’s about is inducing capacities that allow people to learn more independently. So I just got super-jazzed by the science. When I was an undergrad, I was trained by a behavior analyst and saw such incredible results that I wanted to take it further and get the doctorate. And I’ve applied it in a lot of different ways. I’m not a traditional behaviorist at all.
I had a lot of training with another woman who I call my fairy godmother. She’s a traditional psychoanalyst, but not traditional in her practices. So she opened up my heart, she opened up my sense of energetic realms and understanding the world from many different forms of consciousness. So, my practice greatly changed as a result of meeting her and starting to work with all different kinds of people.
VK: Thank you so much for sharing that. Rome, could you please share a little bit about yourself, your background in psychoneuroimmunology, and how that ties into the work that you’re doing now with pain, emotion, and psilocybin.
Rome Shadanloo: Well, I think like many other people, for me, it started out with something I was personally struggling with. I grew up with a lot of health problems, and occasionally, those health problems will pop back up.
I remember always being really interested in psychology and spirituality. And then, two things happened in succession. One was [that] I had this really life-changing psychedelic journey where, in the medicine, I decided to go back to school and study psychology again because it’s something that I had abandoned. I was doing more artistic stuff at the time, and I came out of that journey and quit what I was doing. I applied to go to school in Boston, majoring in holistic psychology.
Once I got there, in my very first class, the professor started talking about something called psychoneuroimmunology. And as she started talking about it, all these things inside of me started clicking. Suddenly, I understood where some of my symptoms were coming from and how your body can store trauma, what it means for inflammation, specifically neuroinflammation, which leads to inflammation in the gut because of the mind-gut axis.
I also began to explore some of Bruce Lipton’s work on how your cells are listening, and the realization that telomeres can grow back, which was huge for me. It gave me a lot of hope that we can heal and that we’re not stuck in our circumstances, and in our bodies. Our bodies are simply trying to communicate to us.
Illness can be such an incredible teacher in ways that feel psychedelic, actually. Because you’re sitting in this soup of truth, and there’s really nowhere to go. You just have to face yourself. I personally just had a wonderful session with neurolinguistic programming (NLP).
Also, the psychedelics can really open up your perception of what’s happening around you and give you flexibility in your mind [around your belief systems]. Opening your eyes up to possibility and connecting you with truth. And these things are extremely healing. I think part of the reason why trauma makes us ill is because we get disconnected from our bodies.
So, between the NLP and the psychedelics, and going where the love is, which is really, really important, I’ve been able to heal a lot of my own illnesses. And I’ve seen a lot of people improve their illnesses, as well.
I had been to so many doctors in the Western world and was just told to get on medication. Sometimes, that’s fine. But there was no looking at the root of why these things were happening.
So, I’m really excited because I feel like the paradigm is shifting. And a lot of people are getting sick, by the way. It’s our environment, it’s our food, it’s our thinking, it’s social media. It’s the trauma that has gotten passed down through the lineages.
But it’s almost coming to this crescendo at the same time as psychedelics, and I don’t think that’s an accident. I think that as a collective, we’re going to start really getting to healing instead of just covering up and discarding. [Of course], I understand that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for everybody.
However, I will say that [doing this work] is the only thing in my life that has felt right. And everything else was just sort of me training myself to have a goal and have a purpose.
VK: Thank you. What a beautiful, vulnerable share. I think people often come to psychedelics through a personal experience. So, you both shared with us a little bit about what brought you down this path individually, but tell us what brought you together in creating Mycology Psychology? What was the gap that you were trying to fill?
RS: That’s a story, right, Victoria? To answer your question, I had been doing my thing.
And Victoria had been doing her thing before we knew each other. She was doing wonderful work as a behavior therapist, and still does. And I was holding space for medicine throughout the pandemic, which was really tough for a lot of people – myself included. But the pandemic kind of gave us Mycology Psychology.
I had to come back to LA from Boston because of the pandemic. I wasn’t able to finish [school]. I [only] had a few elective courses left, so I was feeling a little down. I thought I’d just start some sort of psychedelics education page. I was just sitting there thinking mycology rhymes with psychology. Shortly after, I met someone who helped me [more fully develop this idea]. And they brought Victoria in.
Then, Victoria and I further fleshed Mycology Psychology out into a beautiful collective of therapists and coaches, where we would get together every week and talk about the language of the medicine and share insights and new discoveries with each other because we are really learning in real time. The way [the two of us] work together is such a wholesome and loving, co-cheerleading relationship with a lot of understanding.
Of course, I feel that the studies should be done on this medicine, absolutely. But I also understand that it’s not enough to ever quantify its wisdom, which is so beyond our understanding. [It is] so sentient and so deep.
VS: I mentioned my fairy godmother, Mama Joycey earlier. And one of the gifts that she gave me, among many gifts, was really teaching me to look into the consciousness of our biology, that when there’s something that we’re wanting to learn or something that we’re wanting to evoke, either in ourselves or in a client… there’s a place within us that already holds the wisdom.
The body’s already doing the thing that you’re trying to evoke psychologically. And so… can we connect with that part of ourselves, right? And it comes into a little bit of that Maria Sabina line, “You are the medicine”. There’s wisdom there.
I was actually very hesitant to start working with Mycology Psychology because I was so deeply immersed in the huge influx of clients during COVID, who were all of a sudden open to receiving therapy… and everyone was just flooding in. I was getting a little overwhelmed. And a part of me was probably unconsciously calling in a technology to help manage all of the healing that needs to take place. [I thought], how do we do this? There’s one-to-one work. It’s so taxing, right? This isn’t sustainable.
We need better systems. When this was presented to me, I originally said, “No, thank you”. [But] I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So, I actually came in as a client first because I wanted to feel into what this is about. [I thought], let me feel into microdosing and how this works. I had done some [previous] work with plant medicine.
And, you know, I think some experiences that I had in my personal life that weren’t plant medicine-related were very psychedelic and opened up my world in tremendous ways. So, I was open to it. But I didn’t understand what microdosing was all about.
So I came in as a client with Rome. And I was blown away by how powerful it was to feel the flexibility in my nervous system. I immediately was like, okay, we gotta create systems, we gotta bring in other practitioners, because this is a way people can actually heal themselves with this helper that comes in to help you edit your thoughts, help you be aware of your thoughts, bring in deeper, more subtle sensation to who you are.
There’s much more awareness of who you are, and this robust sense of self that comes in when you’re working with mushrooms. And knowing that we can microdose, that it can be in the day-to-day, was a tremendous, tremendous gift that I couldn’t turn away from.
So, it felt like a really powerful way to answer the question of, How do we manage the needs of so many people on this planet who are struggling so deeply, psychologically, biologically, spiritually, you know. We heal in connection. And this medicine is a connector, a robust connector. So, I feel like I was really handed a gift in meeting Rome and getting to do this work.
VK: I love it. I always wonder what a therapist’s world was like during and post-pandemic. What about the therapist themselves, right? There’s only so much a human being can take. So, thank you for explaining that so eloquently. Huge gap to be filled.
So, you talk about [mushrooms] being very safe substances that can dramatically improve a person’s quality of life. For those who may be curious about microdosing, but are wary of trying it, and maybe think of it as a drug… could you please shed some light into your own experience and how that was for you? Was there fear? How did you approach it? How did you prepare yourself? Can you tell us a little bit about these things?
RS: I think for me, I can distill it down to this moment where I took medicine for the first time in a really, really long time. Okay, this is a quick side story. My mom busted me while I was on mushrooms [during my high school years]. The first time I was ever on mushrooms, my mom and my dad were supposed to go out to a party, right? And [instead], they came home half an hour later. I guess they canceled it. Something happened. And I was like, “Okay, I don’t think these are going to kick in.”
My mom came into the room, started talking to me and stroking my hair. And they kicked in immediately. I said, “Mom, you have to leave, I’m on mushrooms”. And my poor immigrant Iranian mother had no idea what I was talking about. I told her I’m on drugs. So she freaks out, and gets a prescription from a doctor, [for something called] Trazodone. She comes back and force feeds it to me to end the trip. My poor friend who was with me didn’t get any Trazodone, so she was up all night crying by herself. [LAUGHTER]
And now, my mother does mushrooms! In fact, my whole family has used this medicine to heal a lot of trauma in our lineage. From 1997 to 2021, the attitudes that people have around this medicine [have changed tremendously].
But there’s also the people who haven’t caught on to the message yet, right? And to those people I would say this. My experience as an adult, sitting with medicine was that they’ve been lying to me my whole life. These are not drugs. This is medicine. And what is the difference?
The difference is a drug helps you escape yourself. And a medicine will connect you to yourself, and you will know the difference. You know what you’re doing. We all know what we’re doing. Of course, there needs to be due diligence.
I think with proper screening and doing this in integrity, there’s a lot of people that can be helped by this medicine, not drug, medicine. It’s worth exploring something that may help us during this time where we are objectively in crisis.
VS: If I can add, while it is not a one-size-fits-all, [the results have] been shocking. The range of people, symptoms, emotional and psychological states, and physical ailments that are aided by this medicine… it’s wild to me how flexible it is in that way.
Seeing how mushrooms, when they come into the nervous system, have an intelligence that pulls up what people are needing to be more aware of. What’s something that you first need to look at and create change around that’s going to help create more of a ripple effect?
So, while it is not a one-size-fits-all and screening is very important, it’s why everybody that comes through us gets a consultation and works with a practitioner immediately because we want to make sure that there aren’t manic episodes or psychosis that could really create a bad situation.
But the variability in how it can safely treat such a broad range of conditions… we can’t ignore this medicine. It is so powerful. So it’s been really cool to see how many different kinds of people have come through and created some change in their lives, massive change.
I mean, suicidal people, people who have said, “This is my last resort,” who are all right now. Or people who have been on SSRIs their entire lives and felt like their sense of self was gone… and was reawakened and celebrated with this medicine. So, it feels really important for us to continue doing this work and offer this to more people.
RS: About the one-size-fits-all piece again. Psychedelics, as they heal, heal many people differently. For some people, it will show you that you are capable of feeling joy in your body. It’s laughing, it’s having a good time. That can be so healing for people.
For other people, it’s bringing up repressed grief, repressed emotions. That’s also equally important in healing. And for some people with microdosing, I just spoke to someone about this today. She said, “The microdosing is making me irritable.” Okay, so this is where we get into the language of what makes this medicine versus something that is just covering up a symptom.
If the microdose is making you feel irritable, what in your life is irritating you? And what is the medicine asking you to look at and deal with? That’s medicine. It’s not, we’re just going to take this uncomfortable feeling away and give you a binky. Because in the long term, that’s going to handicap you and stunt your growth.
We have a couple of practitioners, Toréa Rodriguez and Lauren Sambataro, who work with people who are taking this medicine, holding the space for them, and coaching them through what the language of the medicine is and how can we use this plasticity to heal our trauma, our relationships and our bodies.
VS: Whether it’s grief that comes up, agitation that comes up, or joy that comes up, the heart is opened… giving people more access to feel themselves. And that’s universal.
VK: How important would you say is intention setting when you’re starting a micro-dosing protocol, or maybe you’re doing a full dose? How much does that influence the outcome?
RS: I think it’s everything, especially if you want sustainable results. You know, you can just pop a microdose or two and feel great and notice that you’re feeling more social or more flexible, and that’s wonderful. But for lasting change, preparation and integration are really key. This is where it gets into what it means [when they say] “You are the medicine”.
VK: Going back to the safety question for a moment, I was pretty dumbfounded by the amount of medicine that a person needs to take to see a profound positive (and lasting) effect. It’s so little, compared to even the starter microdoses (100mg) that we typically see today.
In one study of people with severe depression who took only 20mg a total of two times, researchers found that their depression was better (at least) up to a year later. And the safety record for this medicine is also really remarkable. Would you agree?
RS: What would a psilocybin commercial look like if they listed the side effects? “May tell you the truth, may open your eyes and you may never close them again, may meet God, may love yourself, you know?”
And it is one of the safest substances on the planet. And it’s not legal.
VS: I mean, you could take a bottle of Tylenol and kill yourself, right? Or severely damage your organs. You can’t do that with a bottle of microdose. It would take truckloads of mushrooms to really do some damage. Truckloads. (laughing) You’d scare yourself before you killed yourself, and then you’d scare yourself into truth.
VK: So, let’s get into some of the microdosing regimens. There’s the Stamets protocol. There’s the Fadiman protocol. Some people say they just take it when they feel they need a little boost.
So, who might benefit from more of a structured type of protocol, versus somebody who’s just kind of looking for a little social lubrication, a little boost in mood or creativity? Love to have your thoughts on that.
VS: Well, I think it depends on the intention that you’re holding, right? If someone’s looking to heal a part of themselves, then you want to be very specific with your protocol and your regimen.
If you’re looking to create a very robust sense of neuroplasticity, and again, do we have the research to back up these findings. Well, we do anecdotally, they’re not publishable. There isn’t a lot of research out there on micro-dosing. It’s very hard to measure because it’s not conducive to putting someone in a lab setting for six to eight hours without other variables coming into play.
And even then, other variables come into play. So it’s hard to say definitively, this is what happens. But if your goal is to create a robust sense of flexibility in your nervous system, you want to give yourself the opportunity to do that with intention over a period of time, because we are talking about small doses.
As a behaviorist who understands the way that we learn, it is so important that we utilize the power of repetition and intention, and have conscious reinforcement around things that we’re looking to seek change around.
And if we are looking at the way that our bodies learn, just naturally or organically on their own. And then we add in a protocol where we’re very specific with either five days on, two days off, or four days, three days, or once every other…people sometimes find themselves surprised that they were able to consistently keep up with a regimen that’s really intentionally about healing themselves. I find that all the time with microdosing, actually.
People will say “Oh my god, I was actually able to sustain this for that amount of time”. But we’re finding that with a three-month protocol, we typically suggest people start five days on, two days off.
And then we say, after about a month of that (sometimes sooner), that they can start using their intuition to understand when they’re needing to [microdose], but consistency is key. Because we are trying to change patterns and whenever you’re trying to change behavioral patterns, consistency is key.
VK: Okay, so I wanted to talk a little bit more about integration therapy. Is that something that is used with microdosing and macro dosing both? What are some of the tools that you use?
RS: I think that the integration for microdosing feels a little different than the integration for macrodosing. Macrodosing is more about grabbing this one-time thing that pops up in journey, and learning how to weave it into your life moving forward.
Whereas the microdosing journey, you also microdose the integration in real time during the protocol. So, it’s almost like a three-month journey, but it’s making decisions in the moment while the medicine is in your system and creating those new neural pathways by doing that, like Victoria said, consistently.
In macrodosing, it is about remembering what pops up by journaling or writing it down. And then, starting to make some new decisions moving forward. With microdosing, the changes are made in microdoses.
Victoria and I have sat with people who have had a large experience and have come to us and were like, okay, I’m ready to leave my job. I’m ready to leave my marriage. I’m ready to do this…to which we always suggest waiting a week or two before making these big life-changing decisions.
But with the microdosing, it almost feels like a slower awakening through time. It’s slower and more subtle through time and because it uses repetition, it may be getting ingrained in a different way,
VS: It is very interesting to think about the integrative piece happening in the medicine, right?
Because like Rome was explaining, when you’re working with macro doses, you have the big experience and then… right? But this, you’re driving to work, you’re parenting, you’re at work, you’re choosing what meal to eat…and you have access to the subtle.
What is so interesting that I find, and someone said this so eloquently the other day in an integration session… he said, “It’s like I have a cognitive behaviorist in my mind all the time. [One] that is so gentle and so kind and so funny where all of a sudden, I’m recognizing how much choice I actually have access to. Whereas previously, I didn’t even recognize there were choices half the time. It was like, this is life. This is the way my brain works. These are my thought patterns and we’re just regurgitating same-same every day. And with this, I’m seeing the pattern. The same thought is coming up, but there’s this other part of me that’s going, ‘Did you just see that? Did you see that thing you always do? You don’t have to do that. Let’s think of some other things you can do instead.’”
And so there’s this kind of playful way that you can create change. It’s much more gentle, and I think it’s really powerful to be able to recognize while you’re in your day-to-day, the way we typically would respond to things…to be able to observe that. Because in that observation is where choice comes in, where people can start to do things a little bit differently and relate to one another differently and relate to themselves differently.
So, going back to your original question, integration can look like many different things. Sometimes it’s focusing on the breath. Sometimes it’s holding awareness of your perspective, sharing and having the practitioner reflect it back to you so that together you can come up with new choices and new perspectives.
Some people will say, “I’m seeing that I don’t have to do it this way, but I’m not quite sure what else to do”. That’s when the practitioner can come in and say, “Okay, let’s brainstorm together.” Sometimes, it’s somatic, experiencing where you can really be aware of the subtle patterns of energy in the body as emotions come in and out. And you could really feel and ride the arcs of the emotions differently because you’re aware of your body’s response to it, which allows us to feel more connected to what’s happening and less out of control.
So, there’s so many different ways that you can integrate. It really depends on what’s happening in the person’s life and what their intention is. And that’s why it’s been so important to Rome and I to have a really wide array of practitioners for people to choose from.
Oftentimes, people will even work with multiple practitioners at once so that they can get some of that somatic experiencing, some functional medicine work, do some biohacking kind of stuff as people connect more with what their body is needing while also wanting to make behavioral or psychological changes.
VK: Some of what you’ve described (with having a built-in therapist in the mind) sounds like what meditation does for some people. Opening up the third eye, being able to be the observer. Would you say mushrooms help accelerate or open up that process a little bit more – even if you are a meditator?
RS: Well, I want to say that meditation is also not for everybody. There are people that have such severe trauma. The worst thing you can ask them to do is sit there and meditate. And so this is a wonderful alternative to that.
Yeah, you do get similar benefits from microdosing as you do for meditating. And I want to add that a really beautiful way to integrate a macro journey is to microdose. Because as you’re getting the message from the large journey, the microdosing can help you weave it into your everyday life.
VS: Actually, I’m working with someone who’s currently writing a book on breathwork and meditation and he’s coming to us for integration therapy while he microdoses. And he was like, “I don’t want to meditate right now. I’m so motivated to be in my life. I’m so motivated to be out in nature and be with my family and be with friends and be in connection. And I’m getting the benefits that I would have gotten from sitting and meditating to regulate myself without having to do that right now.”
And I want to add an exclamation point around what Rome said… that not everyone should be meditating because that could be a very triggering event. Also, some people never get to [reach] an actual meditative state. They sit there and just run their thoughts, which could have its own benefits.
It is important to be able to sit and allow yourself to think, right? And not be on the phone or doing something else. But a lot of people aren’t actually meditating because they can’t get there… their thoughts are too loud. They would need a really deep, immersive, retreat-like experience to be able to quiet their thoughts enough to get to a beneficial meditative state.
Meditating is a fabulous medicine and an important tool in the toolbox, for sure. And meditating while microdosing can also be a really beautiful, beautiful experience.
VK: Thank you! Finally, could you tell us a little bit more about where people can find you, for people who may be interested in connecting and learning more about your services?
RS: Victoria leads one of the best community integration groups that I’ve ever been a part of. [It’s held on] the second Saturday of every month and it’s donation based. We give that money to Esperanza Mazateka. And it’s an initiative by her relatives to build a museum for Maria Sabina, and give back to the community from which she came.
Also, you can find us at Mycology Psychology on Instagram and our website. If anyone wanted to work with us individually, or with any of our therapists they can visit our Get Started page to learn more about our process, and fill out a consultation form. The consult is free.
VK: Amazing – thank you so much. This has been such a pleasure.