Why Using Psychedelics Can Feel More Daunting as You Get Older

using psychedelics

It is a common experience to find that you tripped more regularly and frequently in your younger years, with experiences happening less often with age. Initial psychedelic use typically occurs between ages 15 to 19, with 19 being the most likely age for people to first experiment with these compounds (note that this refers to data collected between 1988 and 1992; a more recent study tracked trends of use between 2002 and 2019 and found that in the US, the use of LSD has increased among adults aged 26 and older and decreased among adolescents). Interestingly, other research has found that the rate of lifetime use was greatest among people aged 30 to 34, with many people still tripping in middle age.

Your teenage years may not be the ideal time to begin such experimentation. But in any case, and in spite of recent trends of more adults getting interested in psychedelics, it is still a very common trend for people to have had more psychedelic experiences when they were younger. Moreover, these trips were often approached with more ease, excitement, and fearlessness (and sometimes heedlessness). 

After first use, there typically follows a period of initial strong enthusiasm for having these experiences. But this wanes. As we age, it’s perfectly normal to find it daunting to venture again into the psychedelic realm, and this can sometimes mean tripping less often than as a teenager and young adult. But why might someone feel more intimidated by having a psychedelic experience now compared to, say, a decade ago? 

There are many reasons, in fact. Not all of them will apply to you, but some may resonate. And of course, it should be emphasised that none of them may feel relevant at all; some psychonauts most proactively use these substances in their later years (such as Michael Pollan, although he did say, “I was a very reluctant psychonaut”), and for many there is either no change in their fearlessness or they actually became more intrepid and confident about using psychedelic compared to when they were younger. Also, some young people may be more affected by the stigma surrounding psychedelics, due to the influence of authority figures – and these fears may go away with age after exposure to more accurate information.

More Fearlessness and Risk-Taking in Younger Years

Firstly, many of us know from life experience that we were much more fearless and adventurous in our younger years. It seems kind of obvious that younger people are more reckless than older people. They are more likely than adults to engage in risky and compulsive behaviours, but researchers have begun to understand why: adolescents are much happier to operate under conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty (what others might call ignorance). They don’t want to know information about the risks involved in whatever they’re doing. So, there is also willful ignorance underlying their risky behaviour.

As we get older, such recklessness and risk-taking tend to decline. Gained life experience leads to wisdom about what kinds of activities, including drug use and psychedelic use – and under what circumstances – are in our best interest. Disregarding set and setting (tripping with the wrong mindset and people, and in a disconcerting setting) starts to seem careless and simply not worth the risks involved. With age, more knowledge can also be gained about the risks of drugs being missold (such as neurotoxic and cardiotoxic NBOMe compounds – which can be life-threatening – being commonly sold as LSD). One may also learn about potentially risky drug combinations, including combining psychedelics with cannabis.

There are also other mental health risks associated with psychedelics, including derealisation and depersonalisation, manic and psychotic episodes, and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). Understanding that these risks, albeit rare, are a real possibility – and knowing the factors that increase these risks (e.g. a personal/family history of schizophrenia or bipolar, and certain contraindications) – can lead to more care and caution around the use of psychedelics. In this way, harm reduction typically becomes a greater concern with age (based on experience and knowledge gained). The potential negative effects of using psychedelics are taken more seriously. While one may still want to enjoy and benefit from psychedelics, there is a stronger conviction of also not wanting to mess with one’s mental health, which means approaching psychedelics with more respect and humility. 

Strong or high doses of psychedelics feel especially more daunting with age because one understands, perhaps from personal experience, that these doses carry greater risks (as well as potentially greater rewards). Multiple studies have linked high doses of psychedelics – taken outside of a treatment or study context – to bad trips. 

Previous Bad Trips

Following on from the last point, you may find using psychedelics more daunting now because of a bad trip, or bad trips, you’ve experienced in the past, which may have only come after a string of wholly or mostly positive experiences. Having a difficult experience with psychedelics doesn’t mean that ones following it will therefore be tainted, and one can also be grateful for having had the bad trip, finding it was meaningful and insightful, and believing it positively improved one’s life in the long run. 

However, having a particularly distressing trip – or one that had lasting effects on one’s mental health (beyond the length of the trip) – can still make one more apprehensive about using psychedelics again. And even if apprehension is absent, one can still understand the factors that contributed to a bad trip, making one hesitant about tripping at every opportunity and simply throwing caution to the wind. 

Thus, part of the reason why committing to a trip as a (no longer young) adult feels more like a big deal may be because of the desire to avoid a bad trip again. Many young people using psychedelics may not have yet experienced a challenging trip, but once you have one – especially one that feels hellish or traumatic – you no longer approach psychedelics with such abandon. There is less reason to be worried about having a bad trip, nevertheless, if you know how to navigate difficult psychedelic experiences.

Previous Profound Trips (Which Were Positive)

Tripping as you get older can also feel more daunting if you’ve had positive (but still extremely intense) trips. In your younger years, you may think tripping is all fun and games – that is, until you end up experiencing mystical effects when you don’t expect to; or even if you know they’re a possibility, you may nonetheless experience a kind of ‘ontological shock’ when they occur. The experience may still have been deeply positive, featuring intense states of joy and bliss, but once you understand the depths of power that psychedelics have, you may not approach them so nonchalantly in the future. 

There are also trips that one may not deem ‘bad’ because there were only challenging moments, rather than hours of distress, to overcome. These difficult moments may include disturbing visuals or visions or a feeling of overwhelm, losing control, losing one’s sense of self, or going mad. After such experiences, one may come to more deeply respect the power that psychedelics have and understand that there is no guarantee any future trip will be a walk in the park, full of only euphoria, laughter, and beautiful visuals. One should always be prepared to deal with emotional challenges.

Moving Away From Recreational Group Trips Towards Deeper Solo Journeys

A common pattern to psychedelic use is tripping more recreationally and with friends in your younger years and then becoming interested in deeper, more internal journeys as you age. As we age, our priorities change. While being wowed by visual effects and laughing hysterically with friends is still appreciated as an adult, one may become curious about what lies beyond this – how tripping intentionally, alone, may offer a deeper and more psychologically rich experience.

But there is safety in numbers. When you trip with trusted friends, you have support at hand if you need it. You have less chance of feeling isolated. And you may feel more at ease knowing that the experience will be social, rather than more inner-focused, which can mean confronting all sorts of psychological material. This is not to say that recreational and group trips don’t feature confrontations with self, but they tend to feature this less than solo trips. 

For many psychonauts, tripping alone is their preference, one which they discovered after having had several experiences tripping with others. However, the decision to trip alone also comes with greater risks. Taking a moderate-strong dose of a psychedelic with friends is not the same as taking that same dose on your own. Because of the greater chance of the experience being more psychologically intense, emotional, and challenging, an intentional, solo journey can feel more daunting than a recreational, group experience.

Trying Higher Doses

Another pattern of psychedelic use that exists is building up to higher doses over the years. While it was described earlier how adolescents are more likely to take risks, including with respect to drugs, this doesn’t always mean that people will take high doses of psychedelics in their younger years and then stick to low-moderate doses as they get older. For some psychonauts, however, this does happen (as many find it is no longer necessary to take such high doses to get desirable effects). 

On the one hand, one can feel more fearless about using psychedelics as a young adult but still start with typical recreational doses (e.g. 100 ug of LSD or 2 g of psilocybin mushrooms). It’s common for psychedelic users to increase their dosage as they age after becoming comfortable with low-moderate doses. If as an adult, then, you feel you went to explore the psychedelic experience more deeply, to see what novel experiences may arise, you might decide to take a higher dose. But taking high doses of psychedelics is understandably more daunting than lower ones, as we have seen, because both potential rewards and risks increase.

Things can still go awry on low-moderate doses, especially if multiple aspects of set and setting aren’t taken into consideration. But when you take strong doses of psychedelics, you’re more likely to experience effects like ego dissolution, profound alterations to one’s sense of time (with the peak feeling neverending or eternal), wild swings in emotional states, out-of-body experiences, and the feeling of being in a completely different reality or one’s normal reality becoming unrecognisable due to intense visual effects. These effects can, at times, become overwhelming. The prospect of possibly experiencing them makes such a trip feel much more like a serious commitment than deciding to take a light or moderate dose.

More Responsibilities and Life Stresses

Our younger years tend to be more carefree, with fewer responsibilities, obligations, and commitments. Life can certainly be stressful and distressing for young adults in unique ways, and one’s mental health may actually have been worse when younger than older. For example, it’s normal to build confidence and a sense of self-security with age, shedding certain social anxieties and insecurities we had as young adults. But as you get older, more commitments and life stresses become the norm, often related to work, money, housing, and family. 

Anxieties about these things can feel ongoing and prominent, and with a more mature approach to psychedelics that takes set and setting into account, it may never feel like an ideal time to trip. No one wants to amplify a stressed-out, anxious mind. Also, as you get older and accumulate more responsibilities, you may need to be on call, which means it can feel difficult to comfortably disconnect from the world for a trip. In addition, there can be a sense in which you need to have your shit together as an adult, especially if you have responsibilities like holding down a job and looking after your kids, in which case a profoundly mind-altering trip can feel riskier (even if there’s a good chance of it improving your life if the experience is well-planned and positive). 

One’s attitude towards having a psychedelic experience can change in all sorts of ways as we age. If you feel committing to one is more daunting in your 30s and 40s compared to your late teens and 20s, this is pretty normal, and there are several possible reasons why this is the case. However, if this different attitude is translated into an approach of respect, caution, preparation, intention-setting, and care for one’s well-being, then positive and meaningful experiences will be more likely. But if tripping right now feels extremely daunting, to the point that you feel more nervousness than excitement about tripping again, then it’s perhaps best to wait until a better time.

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