Whenever discussing harm reduction related to psychedelic use, we need to consider not just how psychedelics are used but also if they should be used at a particular moment in time. In his book The Joyous Cosmology (1962), Alan Watts famously cautioned psychedelic users:
When you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope; he goes away and works on what he has seen.
The line preceding this quote, not often included when shared, is:
[P]sychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful.
This advice is common, as is the recommendation – and path that psychonauts have followed, ever since the 60s – of taking up and deepening a meditation practice to integrate psychedelic experiences. However, having had a “glimpse of genuine mystical insights” is only one reason to take a break from psychedelics, or perhaps in some cases, not return to them at all. (There is debate about whether Watts’ quote should mean taking a step back from psychedelic use for the time being or that once a mystical experience has been achieved, there is no point or use in trying to repeat the experience.)
In this piece, I would like to touch on some other reasons why, at the very least, temporarily avoiding psychedelics can be wise from a harm-reduction perspective. More psychedelic use does not translate, necessarily, into greater mental health benefits, or an upwards trajectory towards enlightenment. In many cases, more frequent use has the opposite effect: ongoing mental distress and states of delusion, rather than clarity.
If tripping is constantly on your mind – past trips, often wishing you were tripping in the present moment, thinking about when you can trip in the future – then this may signal an unhealthy obsession, rather than a passion. As in stoner culture, you may construct a whole identity around psychedelics, and you may find that you are always thinking, reading, and talking about the wondrous effects of psychedelics. This does not mean such a mindset is definitely obsessive, in an unhealthy way, since there are plenty of researchers, writers, and other professionals whose very careers, meaning, and purpose stem specifically from psychedelics.
Nevertheless, we can say that a possible sign of obsession rather than passion is if thoughts about psychedelics take you away from the present moment and/or you become overly attached to them as something that determines your sense of identity and self-esteem. There is more to life than psychedelics, and if that becomes difficult to see – how life can be fulfilling without psychedelics – then that in itself could be a sign of obsession and the need to take a break from them.
Related to the last point, psychedelic use can become a form of escapism – a way to escape from the dissatisfactions and boredom of everyday life. Psychedelics, undoubtedly, can make life more satisfying and interesting (not just during the trip, but after as well); but as in the case of obsession, there is a fine line between enhancement and escapism. Similar to the case of obsessiveness, escapism is marked by dissatisfaction with the present moment.
While psychedelics can be beneficial in some cases when this dissatisfaction comes from deep-seated trauma, a crisis of identity or meaning, or one’s personal shadow, they’re not a magic bullet for the distress that originates in one’s personal circumstances, which may also be related to social, cultural, political, and economic issues.
What’s more, if sober reality seems bland, meaningless, and uninspiring post-psychedelic use – which is sometimes called ‘post-ecstatic blues’ – and only the psychedelic state and afterglow feel the opposite, then psychedelics have the potential to become a form of escapism. In this case, serious questions need to be asked about why the psychedelic experience feels satisfying on some level but not everyday life. This might indicate that there is something about the psychedelic state – on a cognitive, emotional, attitudinal, existential, or spiritual level – that one would like to feel when sober but doesn’t currently, or can’t maintain for long after the psychedelic experience is over.
Being able to reshape an unhealthy sense of self through psychedelics is an aspect of healing, but this requires work after the experience. Turning to the psychedelic experience as the sole means of modifying the relationship with ego could be escapism rather than self-development – the latter treating psychedelics as a tool, or a means to an end, but not a fix or the end itself.
The journalist Ed Prideaux wrote a piece for Ecstatic Integration titled ‘Are psychedelics more addictive than we think?’ Psychedelics are commonly framed as being non-addictive – as well as anti-addictive, given their potential to treat various forms of addiction – but Prideaux points out that habitual use of these compounds can legitimately be classed as a kind of addiction. While many the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, is flawed in many respects, including its pathologisation of normal, understandable emotional reactions, temperaments, and behaviours, its recognition of hallucinogen use disorder (HUD) is still nonetheless worth exploring. Symptoms include:
- The person continues to use the hallucinogens, even though they have social or interpersonal problems, such as arguments, as a result of their drug use
- The person continues to use hallucinogens even though they know it is causing or worsening a physical or psychological problem
- The person craves hallucinogens
- The person fails to carry out significant roles at work, school, or home because of their hallucinogen use
- The person gives up or reduces other activities that are important to them, such as social, work-related, and other recreational activities. The person has difficulty cutting down or controlling their hallucinogen use
- The person spends a lot of time getting, using, and recovering from hallucinogens
- The person takes more of the hallucinogen than they intended to
- The person uses hallucinogenic drugs in dangerous situations, such as driving or operating machinery
- Tolerance for hallucinogens
(The use of the term ‘hallucinogen’ here is controversial – as its use in general – because it promotes the misconception that psychedelics primarily or commonly cause hallucinations, which is also linked to the stigma-inspired belief that anything experienced under their influence is false or delusional. I have included the term above to show how it is officially used for the diagnosis of HUD – ‘psychedelics’ can be replaced with ‘hallucinogen’ above without losing the meaning of HUD.)
To be diagnosed with HUD, a person must take a psychedelic and exhibit at least two of the symptoms described above within a 12-month period. Unlike other substance use disorders, however, withdrawal symptoms are rarely, if ever, involved in HUD. There will not be a physical withdrawal syndrome when psychedelic use stops. One exception to this rule is MDMA (many consider it to be a non-classic psychedelic), which shares many of the characteristics of stimulants, and it does appear to create withdrawal symptoms in many individuals who have a chronic use pattern.
Addiction to psychedelics is more psychological in nature. While it may be correct to classify them as physically non-addictive, this does not mean they cannot be psychologically habit-forming, with such patterns of use continuing despite the negative effects it has on a person’s life.
HUD, it should be said, is very rare. In one study on the condition, 0.07% of survey respondents who had a history of drug use met the criteria for abuse of psychedelics and 0.04% met the criteria for dependence. However, the same study found that HUD symptoms were common in the subsample of respondents who reported psychedelic use in the past year: 20% of MDMA users and 16% of other psychedelic users reported one or more symptoms of HUD. While there is a low risk of becoming addicted to psilocybin, LSD, or DMT, if one has a history of addiction, an addictive personality, or escapist tendencies, there is a higher chance of developing an unhealthy relationship with psychedelics.
There are many factors that make addiction to psychedelics unlikely: duration of the experience, powerful subjective effects, challenging emotions, and tolerance building quickly. But if you do find psychedelic use has become habitual, then it may be time to take a step back from the experience. You might be trying to chase an emotional experience – a feeling of euphoria, contentment, peace of mind, or connection – and if so, it’s worth asking why you are lacking this experience outside of psychedelic use. What’s blocking these feelings in day-to-day living?
Worsened Mental Health
Psychedelics can sometimes worsen your mental health. Possible difficulties related to psychedelic use include:
- Spiritual emergencies: characterised by emotional overwhelm, a crisis of meaning and identity, and disruption to everyday functioning
- Derealisation and depersonalisation: the feeling that reality and you as an individual, respectively, are unreal, or a feeling of being detached from the world and yourself
- Mania: unreasonable euphoria, full of energy or irritability, flight of ideas, delusions, high levels of talkativeness or talking faster than usual, not sleeping)
- PTSD: sometimes a ‘bad trip’ is so severely distressing that it is traumatic and leaves one with PTSD symptoms that were not present before the experience
- Messiah complex: many psychedelic gurus have experienced this, as do other psychonauts; it is characterised by the belief that you have been selected to receive and deliver wisdom and save the world. It is perhaps best summed up in the lyrics of Tool’s track ‘Rosetta Stoned’, which centres around a wild psychedelic trip: “E.T. revealed to me his singular purpose. He said, “You are the Chosen One, the One who will deliver the message. A message of hope for those who choose to hear it and a warning for those who do not.” Me. The Chosen One? They chose me! And I didn’t even graduate from fuckin’ high school.”
- Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD): persisting visual effects following a psychedelic experience, which become a source of distress and/or disrupt one’s daily life
If you experience any signs of worsened mental health following a psychedelic trip, such as sudden and drastic changes to mood or increases in anxiety, this should at the very least encourage you to take a step back from psychedelics. This may be a difficult decision to make, especially if you’re in the throes of a manic or messianic episode and you can’t see the problem with the emotions and ideas you’re experiencing, but if family and friends are concerned about your current mental state and behaviour, you should take their concerns seriously.
There’s a widespread narrative in the psychedelic community that if you experience emotional difficulties after a trip, then this is a sign that you should sit with the medicine again to work through those issues. But that can be a risky piece of advice to follow. Taking psychedelics when experiencing any of the issues described above can end up worsening the symptoms and destabilising you further.
If you experience mental health difficulties after a trip, it’s often wise to avoid classic psychedelics at the very least, and perhaps non-classic psychedelics too, such as MDMA, ketamine, and cannabis. Psychedelics should not be seen as the solution to all distress, especially if that distress is specifically linked to psychedelic use itself. There are times when psychedelics may be a source of harm, and in these cases, non-psychedelic healing is safer, which may call for a change in lifestyle or emotional support from loved ones, one’s community, or a professionally trained therapist, counsellor, or coach who is familiar with the issues you’re struggling with. (This is not to rule out the possibility that tripping again at some point in the future will help to heal the psychological impact of previous trips.)
Taking a break from psychedelics – whether due to unhealthy patterns of use or psychedelic-induced distress – will have different timeframes for different individuals. It will vary depending on what issues are being experienced, the degree to which they are being experienced, and individual factors like personality and mental health. The break could last as little as a few months to as long as several years. But in some cases, true healing will require an indefinite break, and perhaps discontinuing use completely (which doesn’t have to close one off from other spiritual practices, such as meditation).
One shouldn’t be impatient about returning to psychedelics, however, just because one misses the experience or due to FOMO. If you feel extremely nervous about using psychedelics again because of past or ongoing issues related to their use, then this is a sign that it’s not time to return yet. Patience, on the other hand, will be rewarded. Once you approach psychedelics with more respect, intention, and preparation, you can experience greater and long-lasting benefits and minimise the risk of those issues arising again.