Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Personal Experience
NOTE: This piece details the author’s use and self-experimentation with psychedelic substances. It is a criminal offense in the United States and many other countries, punishable by imprisonment and/or fines, to manufacture, possess, or supply these substances except in government-sanctioned research. Please understand that this piece is solely intended to convey the author’s personal experiences. It is not intended to encourage you to break the law, and is not intended as a substitute for advice from a mental health professional.
One of the most beautiful parts of life is that when we take a moment to look back on our lives a few years ago, we realize that there was no way that we could have predicted what we are doing now. One of these moments occurred for me recently, when I realized how this quote that I selected as my “senior quote” in high school so accurately reflected a recent realization that I have experienced in my spiritual practice through use of psychedelics and entheogens.
Since as long as I can remember, I have experienced bouts of moderate to severe anxiety. I try to be transparent about it, because I feel like being up front about my own shit helps other people feel like they can be up front about theirs. Honesty allows for greater connection and stronger relationships. Sometimes, people that I spend time with at work or at school will ask me how I manage it. I usually respond by explaining that I meditate twice daily, do a full yoga asana practice 6 times per week, and try my best to not take life so seriously. While all of these things are true and have been extremely helpful, I typically leave out the part about how occasionally eating psilocybin mushrooms or going to a trusted friend’s apartment to smoke toad venom out of a crack pipe (sorry mom!) have changed my relationship to anxiety in a way I never thought possible.
I have always had a strong underlying feeling that I needed a powerful tool to root out the anxiety that was causing me mental harm. I found this tool in psychedelics and entheogens.
Psychedelics and entheogens (“plant medicines”) are consciousness-shifting substances that provide us with a visionary state where we can experience spiritual and personal revelations, connect with the divine, and gain insight into the deepest parts of ourselves (https://psychedelictimes.com/what-is-the-meaning-of-psychedelic-the-difference-between-psychedelics-hallucinogens-and-entheogens/). Currently, some of these compounds are being used in clinical trials to assist in healing psychological and emotional damage from traumatic situations, treating anxiety related to life-threatening illnesses, and treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (https://maps.org/research).
I was first introduced to the idea of psychedelics when reading Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind on a family vacation in North Carolina last year. I bought the book because I was intrigued by the idea of learning more about the human brain and wanted to read someone else’s experience of using mind-altering drugs. I was not necessarily sold on the idea of using them myself. As I started reading, I found myself borderline obsessed with the concepts of brain processing that Pollan describes. When I finished the book, I started to entertain the idea that these substances might be the answer I was looking for. I was fascinated by the idea that the brain regulates our external world in ways we are unaware of, such that what we think we are perceiving may actually be something completely different. I promised myself that I would not actively seek the experience, but if it fell into my lap, I would give myself the option.
Like I had hoped, shortly thereafter I was given an opportunity to experience the profound effects of these substances. Psychedelic experiences have been some of the most beautiful and profound moments of my life. These substances have allowed me to form a greater connection to myself and to others, and have taught me how to love and enjoy life.
Forming Greater Connections
When I was first asked to write about my experience with psychedelics and anxiety, I was excited to share what I have learned in my personal experience, but also worried about how I would translate this experience into words. The reason that plant medicines are often regarded as equal parts terrifying and beautiful is because they possess an intelligence far greater than what we can comprehend. These substances take us far beyond the veil of our ego, and let us access places in our brains that are normally silenced by the rational thinking mind. Psychedelic experiences are often regarded as “ineffable,” or beyond the reach of language. In an effort to avoid the literary risks that come with attempting to describe an indescribable experience (and to save you some boredom), I have instead detailed below some of the most significant takeaways from these experiences, and how they have helped me change my relationship to anxiety.
A. Connecting to Our Highest Self
I believe that psychedelics have the power to heal our bodies and minds in ways far beyond our current understanding. Part of this healing capacity involves their ability to bring us closer to our highest self. During a psychedelic experience, the voices that make us question ourselves, feel anxious, or create fear thoughts become more quiet, and we can hear the parts of our mind that don’t speak as often. For me, I have been able to get in touch with a softer, more understanding part of myself. This version of myself that has taught me to accept myself where I currently am and understand that the challenges I face have been placed there by a higher power to teach me lessons that will allow me to become a greater version of myself.
Spending time with my higher self has also showed me that there is a “me” who is more loving, joyful, and free from mental affliction. Seeing this version of myself for the first time was a groundbreaking moment in my relationship to my anxiety, because it was the first time I realized that my anxiety was fluid. It could be moved, molded, and changed. Most importantly, I realized anxiety was not a part of my identity, but rather a frequent emotion. Being able to separate my true nature from something that has caused me immense pain made me feel hopeful.
Since that moment of realization, I have continually worked towards separating myself from my anxiety so that I can examine it, pick it apart, and gain a better understanding of its role. While changes in mentality during an actual psychedelic experience are wonderful, the most significant personal work occurs after the experiences end. During a trip, I witness the higher version of myself that is more joyful, more compassionate, and actively engaged with her environment. After the trip ends, I like to spend time integrating this mentality into my daily life to feel more #chill. For example on a vacation to the Caribbean, I spent time outdoors on a psychedelic trip and noticed that I enjoyed the grounding energy of trees along the beach. Normally, I wouldn’t have noticed this, and if I did, I probably would have moved on to the next thought before I realized how special it was. After getting home, I practiced appreciating the trees that I walk past on my way to the subway, and noticed that it was an extremely similar feeling to what I felt in Puerto Rico. The only difference was that I was taking time to appreciate things that I usually overlook (and that I had to take the NYC subway again, which resulted in a lot more sweat than I’d like to admit).
Apart from gaining appreciation for the smallest details of life, emulating the traits of a higher version of myself has become a helpful practice in being more compassionate, patient, and loving. While practicing acting as a higher version of myself, I am able to extend kindness and compassion towards others, and nurture my relationships in a way that I was previously not capable of. This is not to say that it happens all the time, but getting to a point in your practice where after getting swept up in daily stressors, you remember to come back to grace is important. Grace is the unseen hand that guides us back to our practice when we fall astray or get too wrapped up in our daily worries or emotions. In my experience, the greatest treature of spiritual practice lies in the moment where you remind yourself to return to peace.
B. Connecting to Nature
Some of my favorite psychedelic experiences have occurred while in nature. Psychedelics can reduce activity in the part of our brain that is responsible for our normal mental chatter (this is called the default mode network). In certain circumstances (like psychedelic experiences in which your eyes are closed), this can allow us to take a journey inward, deeper into layers of our mind that we don’t usually interact with. However, in other circumstances (like psychedelic experiences outdoors, when we choose to actively interact with our environment), we are better able to direct our attention outward, because our internal dialogue is reduced. For example, I frequently microdose (you can read more about microdosing in the Third Wave’s guide to microdosing) psilocybin mushrooms when I am exploring a new city. Normally, spending time in fast-paced urban environments without a “home base” like a hotel room or a car makes me anxious. While microdosing, I find that I am less concerned about where I’ll find a clean public bathroom or how hot the weather is (if you know me well, you know I strongly believe any temperature above 75 degrees is too hot and am very vocal about it), because the psychedelic substances helps me to quiet this anxiety-voice.
Using psychedelics in nature can also help us turn our attention outward because we can see nature with different eyes. Visually, colors look more vivid, and textures are more interesting. Mentally, we are able to see things we normally do not notice because of our reduced internal dialogue. I think that the best way to do this is with people you trust, in a relaxing and familiar environment that you feel safe in (i.e. not in a place full of strangers where circumstances can change quickly, or in the woods where you could get lost). Personally, that means sitting and looking at trees (s/o to my boyfriend who drove me around Puerto Rico in the backseat of a golf cart to 3 different beaches because I was tripping and needed to look at the trees along the road).
Using psychedelics outdoors helps me form a greater connection to the natural world. Being able to observe trees, insects, flowers, and landscapes with the sense of childlike awe that is brought on by psychedelic substances has allowed me to feel immense gratitude for being able to live on this earth. There is so much beauty here, and nature’s imagination is one of the most incredible things that we can contemplate. I mean, when you think about it, the fact that flamingos are actually a real animal is amazing. Or, what about nebulas in outer space? You can think about this forever, and in my experience the more you do, the more you understand that humans are just a small part of the universe (we just take ourselves very seriously).
Applying this idea to anxiety can come in the form of practicing resting in a space of complete awe. Everything in our lives is sacred. This idea is easy to apply to pleasant things like our loved ones, our pets, or our material objects. It is harder to apply to challenges, setbacks, mental afflictions, and stressors. I don’t have an answer for this, but in my experience, the work lies in making the choice to see everything we experience as a miracle.
C. Connecting to the Divine and Anxiety as Our Greatest Teacher
Psychedelics have also deepened my yoga practice by opening my heart to unconditional love. Powerful psychedelic trips let us transcend our individual selves to clear blockages in the heart chakra, and introduce us to the energy that underlies the universe (what some people might call God, the Supreme Self, or the One). This energy is made up of love. Those who have experienced this can attest that it is one of the most comforting, illuminating, indescribable feelings that humans can experience. Exploring new parts of the mind adds depth to our being, and shows us that we are part of something greater than ourselves.
From a spiritual perspective, psychedelic use has allowed me to connect to spiritual guides that have been a part of my path for years. The noetic revelation that there are supreme beings, teachers, and spiritual guides that help us along our path has aided me in trusting where I am on the path, the challenges that I face, and also helps me feel as if the positive things I receive in life are well-deserved.
Connecting to this life-force energy has also allowed me to begin to entertain the idea that everything in the universe, and therefore everything in my life, arises from a source of love. Realizing this has made me more grateful for everything that I come into contact with, and has allowed me to start making choices that keep me inside this high-vibrational place of love. Often, tapping in to this vibration requires the choice to set aside ego-driven desires, such as being right, being “the best”, attachment to material objects (the list goes on). Sometimes, this is really hard! If I’m arguing with my partner about household chores or am frustrated with a comment on a work assignment, I often have to battle between the peaceful choice (resolve the conflict with compassion and see the other person as a mirror of my own actions) and the ego-driven choice (continue fighting about whose turn it is to put away the laundry when I well know that it is mine). That said, after feeling the peace that is available when choosing to rest in a place of love, I am more likely to choose the former.
This method works for anxious thoughts and feelings as well. For example, I often worry about my to-do list, and feel overwhelmed about completing all of my tasks. At its worst, anxiety makes it difficult to complete even a small task (hi again, laundry issues). But if I take a moment to remember that each portion of the universe is founded from a source of love, I can change my mentality towards the laundry and complete the task. Instead of feeling worried, I feel grateful that I am able to wear clean clothes. Obviously, this doesn’t happen all of the time, but I like to think that even being able to have the awareness that there is a choice between anxiety and gratitude is a huge step in itself.
Through this practice, I have realized that my anxiety is my greatest teacher. Anxiety wants to keep us safe, but at times it can overestimate a challenge and underestimate our ability to cope. Each time I experience anxious feelings, I am presented with a choice: I can respond to the anxiety in a fear-based way, or I can remember that the very situation that is causing me anxiety is one that I should be grateful for. Most times, what may be terrifying at one moment will ultimately resolve itself, and the best way to see these challenges through is to remain present and relaxed while they pass.
By opening my mind and heart to a greater capacity for love and gratitude, psychedelics have helped me realize that anxiety is something to work with, not to fear. I hope that by reading my experience, you are inspired to explore your own consciousness in a way that feels right for you.
These substances are NOT a substitute for medication or help from a mental health professional.
They are a fantastic aid for some, but may not work for others. If you see a mental health professional, it may be helpful to discuss your ideas with them beforehand.
If you decide to follow this path, you are taking a journey deep inside your brain, and you owe it to yourself to be as educated as possible before you begin. This includes speaking to a mental health professional and researching possible contraindications with medication. There are numerous books, articles, podcasts and other sources of information that can provide insight into these experiences and how they can help us. Some resources are listed below.
Integrate EVERY psychedelic experience, and do not have another experience until you feel you have fully integrated the lessons from your previous one.
A helpful way to integrate a psychedelic experience is journaling immediately after the experience and in the days, weeks, and months after. This will help you remember and keep track of key things that you realized during your time in an altered consciousness. Additionally, reading your own account of what happened can help alleviate any anxiety or fear as you prepare for your next experience.
If you are going to use psychedelics, practice safely and responsibly.
Never use psychedelics in an environment that is unpredictable, where you have never been, or with people you cannot be your true self with. Set and setting are extremely important and will dictate your entire experience. For more information, please see the references below.
Your experiences are your own.
Psychedelic experiences are highly personal and intimate, and humans generally lack the language necessary to describe what unfolds before us during altered states. It is important to only share your experiences with people who are open minded that you trust. Remember that there is also value in keeping some of these moments to yourself. Keeping parts of your exploration into the deepest levels of your mind private can help you become your own best friend and cultivate self love and respect.
You still have to do the work.
Plant medicines do not get rid of your problems, but show you tools that you can use to work on them. The work begins after the experience.
Be gentle with yourself, and practice radical compassion.
Psychedelics are wonderful tools to explore the deepest layers of the self, and it is important to approach your process with kindness and respect.
Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies: https://maps.org/
Third Wave: Resources for Safe, structured, and responsible psychedelic use: https://thethirdwave.co/
Various resources from Michael Pollan: https://michaelpollan.com/resources/psychedelics-resources/
Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, William A. Richards
The Psychedelic Experience, Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert