Imagine that you have just finished reading about transformational experiences induced by psilocybin mushrooms and you decide that you’re ready to facilitate a powerful experience of your own. You set up the room to be comfortable: soft lights, gentle music, lavender essential oil misting from your diffuser. Taking in this lovingly assembled nest, you feel reassured that the high dive into the depths of your consciousness will be an exhilarating and beautiful ride. You take a heroic dose, wishing for your epiphanic breakthrough as you swallow one mushroom after the other.
Forty-five minutes pass, and your inner experience looks nothing like the peaceful setting meant to set the mood. Eyes open, you feel overwhelmed and nauseous; eyes closed, terrifying images take shape in the darkness. A storm of anxiety rolls over your reality, and as you reflect on your existence, you begin to seriously question whether or not “everything is okay.” You try desperately to halt this train of fear and self-doubt, but the harder you push against it, the more invincible the force feels.
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When overwhelmed by a psychedelic trip, it’s natural to seek an emergency escape route—to seek out a big red “CANCEL” button that puts us in charge of the experience. Many wonder if there is a chemical antidote that can restore a sober mindset, but others argue that seeing these challenging experiences through can offer profound growth and transformation.
Reframing a ‘Bad Trip’ on Mushrooms
At face value, a difficult psychedelic experience might be written off as a chemical side effect to be remedied. In this way, it makes sense that someone might seek out a quick chemical fix, especially in cultures that pathologize difficult emotional experiences and respond with pharmaceutical intervention. However, another school of thought looks at psychedelic-induced crises as reflections of deep-seated personal truths that we are better off facing.
In other words, how you handle your too-intense mushrooms experience can be an insightful process of self-discovery. If you find yourself pushing against painful or uncomfortable emotions while taking psychedelics, might you also be pushing away from challenging experiences in other areas of your life?
Sara Gael, M.A., is the harm reduction officer at the Zendo Project, a non-profit research and educational organization that provides a safe space and trained staff at events where individuals might be taking substances and encounter challenging experiences. Gael, who is also a study therapist for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy with the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), has worked extensively with a framework that understands and integrates challenging psychedelic experiences.
“We’re not fixing anything, we’re not changing anything, we’re not making anything ‘better,’” Gael said in a 2016 Zendo Project training session. “What we’re trying to do is allow for the process of grief that needs to happen on this planet in order to heal.”
Grief, in this context, can be any sense of pain, loss, anxiety, or trauma that emerges in your psychedelic experience. In many cultures, unfiltered emotional expression is highly stigmatized and discouraged, but suppressing them has been associated with several negative outcomes. Similarly, we need to metabolize intense emotions spurred by psychedelics so they are not simply filed away with other unconfronted experiences.
“Turning toward rather than away from one’s experience is a good lesson for life in general, and is also relevant to the psychedelic experience,” Gael tells DoubleBlind. “When we are surrendered to life, we are in a place of trust, receptivity, and curiosity. An opposite of surrender is to fight against the flow of one’s experience.”
‘Turn Toward, Not Away’
Imagine again that you are in the throes of a challenging experience. You let your roommate know that you’re having a hard time, and they sit with you, offering gentle reminders that this is only temporary and that you are safe. Instead of resisting the powerful current and swimming upstream, you let go, breathing out expectations of what the experience was “supposed” to be and breathe in acceptance of what is unfolding within you. This is but one example of how surrender might look in a mushroom trip that became too powerful.
“Surrender is a process by which we attempt to trust or relax into the experience,” Gael says. “Psychedelics can sometimes show us that the things we think we have control over are actually outside of our control. This can be liberating, but it can also be scary.”
Surrendering to your experience relates to the philosophy of non-attachment in Zen Buddhism and other Eastern practices. In a nutshell, this concept describes how we ease our grip on certain expectations so that uncontrollable, impermanent forces do not dominate us. We accept that emotions, experiences, and situations flow in and out of our lives; we allow them to do so without trying to desperately avoid or catch them as they drift by.
Grounding this concept in a too-intense psychedelic experience, Gael suggests bringing awareness to your body, mind, and emotions. “If you notice tension in your body or mind, this is a good sign that there may be a place you are struggling to surrender to,” she says.
Grounding Techniques for Intense Mushroom Trips
When it comes to too-intense mushroom trips, consider reframing your goal so that instead of trying to stop your experience, try to work through it. “It is easier to surrender when we are feeling a sense of safety,” Gael says.
The term “grounding” refers to engaging activities, practices, and comforts that help you feel safe and secure.
When feeling overwhelmed by your experience, think about what would make you feel safe. Maybe that involves the presence of your best friend, wrapping yourself in blankets in your room, listening to music that is familiar and comforting, or sitting outside in fresh air. Consider what safety looks like to you personally and how you might build that into your environment if your psychedelic experience becomes jarring.
When asked about techniques that may help ground someone in an intense experience, Gael says that mindful breathing can be helpful in some situations. She suggests breathing deeply into the belly with slow exhales, focusing on the breath moving in and out of the body. Gael also recommends a grounding visualization exercise: Whether you are indoors or out, imagine an anchor extending from your body downwards into the earth below you, focusing on its support and stability.
Art and movement, Gael says, can also be grounding. “It can be helpful to express either through art or through physical movement like dancing or voluntarily shaking,” she says. “Using the voice to move the energy can be helpful if the environment allows for this.”
Are There “Quick Fixes” that Stop a Mushroom Trip?
Combing through online forums, you are likely to come across suggestions of fast-acting remedies such as citric acid or sedatives. While quick-fix solutions may be tempting, adding more ingredients to the neurochemical pot can run the risk of worsening the situation.
There’s a reason the Zendo Project relies solely on the calming presence of informed, empathic volunteers and comfortable spaces to see individuals through their challenging experiences. Advice to ride out your experience using natural grounding techniques may not resonate with you right away. It can take time to find the support and tools that are right for you, and figuring out how to address your unique needs can be a self-nurturing process in and of itself.
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Integrating Your Psilocybin Experience
An intense psilocybin mushroom experience can be impactful long after the effects wear off. You may go through the following days and weeks feeling extra connected with yourself and others in a sensation commonly called “the afterglow.” Conversely, you may also experience elevated feelings of disconnection following an intense journey, as if everything in your reality feels just a little more distant. These aftereffects typically only last a short period of time, but many report changes in attitude, purpose, and perspective long after the experience.
The powerful transformative potential of psychedelics warrants what is called “integration,” or the process of converting ineffable experiences into insights that may be used to support yourself and others. An increasing number of licensed mental health professionals are offering integration services to help clients process their experiences and understand their relationship to them.
However, not everyone has access to mental health care or feels safe opening up to professionals about their use of psychedelics. Other ways to incorporate meaningful lessons from your psilocybin experience include writing and journaling, creating art that reflects your psychedelic encounter, and sharing the experience with a trusted friend—maybe even someone else who has had a difficult or profound journey themselves.
In a 1994 lecture at the University of Washington, ethnobotanist and philosopher Terence McKenna described “bad trips” in cultural terms: “We [Western societies] have no tradition of shamanism. We have no tradition of journeying into these mental worlds. We are terrified of madness.”
It is natural to fear what we don’t understand, whether we are experiencing extreme states of mind ourselves or sitting with a friend who is having a difficult time. The greatest service we can provide to both ourselves and those around us is expanding our understanding of psychedelic experiences and knowing how to respond supportively; consider starting with the educational materials provided by the Zendo Project. Sitting presently and compassionately with yourself and others is a skill with no ceiling—there is always more to learn.
And undoubtedly, some of the greatest teaching moments come from those seemingly unbearable experiences that we once ran from.