Have a nice trip!: safety lessons for psychedelics

Just like the regular garden variety, mushrooms with psychoactive compounds are hotly debated– not for their flavor, but for their safety. On one hand, it can be argued that taking magic mushrooms can be the catalyst for positive emotions, spiritual experiences, and generally feeling a sense of belonging, understanding, and transcendence. On the other hand, many users have reported feeling a loss of self-control, being frighteningly separated from their bodies, and an anxious panic (Studerus et al., 2012). These experiences can be devastating to the psyche, and there are reports of psychedelic users going to the ER after experiencing psychosis. In fact, when psychedelic research first began, researchers likened “trips” to visual and auditory hallucinations from disorders such as schizophrenia. Scientists held out hope that psychotic breaks on psychedelics could help them understand and potentially cure frightening mental disorders (Pollan, 2019). Although shrooms and schizophrenia ended up being quite different, the similarities in their scary symptoms were apparent.

Despite the fear of having a “bad trip,” the other possibility of having a mind-altering, positive, spiritual experience means that there are psychedelic users willing to accept the risk of having a negative experience. For this reason, even though we have other people’s health and best interests in mind, it is unrealistic to approach psychedelic use as a irredeemable violation of the law. As much as people are warned about the dangers of drug use, curiosity will get the best of some individuals– as many as 10% of people in the U.S have tried magic mushrooms at some point in their life (Johnson et al., 2018). Instead of outlawing and punishing the use of psychedelics, which have legal loopholes anyway, educating the public on how to best increase their chance of having a safe and fun experience may be an easier and more sensible approach. If we cannot prevent people from using magic mushrooms or LSD, we can teach them about their dangers and how to minimize the risks.

Neurological evidence points to a sensory overload in specific parts of the brain as the main source of a “bad trip.” Drugs such as LSD prevent our brain’s natural information filter, the thalamus, from doing its job properly. Without a properly functioning thalamus, which directs signals to their adequate places in the brain, the floodgates are open and the brain’s signaling pathways become disjointed. One region, known as the posterior cingulate cortex, helps control one’s sense of self. If too many neural signals are directed at it, the cortex is overloaded and it is unable to connect with other brain regions to compensate (Lebedev et al., 2015). Impaired self-identity, also known as ego death, is experienced. Feeling outside of one’s physical body is also common (Guterstam, 2015). Ego death can potentially drive a spiritual connection to the world and the earth, but more often than not, users experiencing ego death cannot find something else to latch on to, which is an anxiety-inducing thought. 

One of the brain signals whose overabundance causes ego death has been identified as the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is one of the most commonly found chemicals in the brain, so it makes sense that an alteration on where it is sent can cause havoc. After analyzing glutamate levels in people on trips and comparing personal experience on the drug, more glutamate directed toward our cortex and away from the hippocampus, our memory center, also resulted in the loss of self-identity (Mason et al., 2020). 

The main takeaway here is that ego death is a psychedelic-caused disruption in brain signaling. The greater the amount of the psychedelic taken, the greater the potential for that disruption. A higher dose intensifies the highs of a trip, but it also strengthens the pathways which lead to those highly negative responses. This is why taking an appropriate drug dose is vital to promoting a fun trip. First-time users may be tempted to eat an entire handful of magic mushrooms, but they should be aware that neurobiology is working against them. With a simple Google search, you can find a variety of dosage guides. Think about your limits.

Psilocybin dosage chart from realitysandwich.com

Biological mechanisms aside, there are also a lot of personal factors that influence someone’s likelihood of having a “bad trip.” Researchers have looked at the relationship between innate personality and subjective negative psychedelic experiences, as assessed by the user on the peak of their trip. While higher drug doses can intensify ego death, having a volatile personality corresponds just as strongly with that loss of self control. Being emotionally unstable and psychedelic compounds do not mix well– shocking, right? Still, the idea carries more weight when it is based on controlled experiments rather than intuition on what it means to be easily excitable. Conversely, people who have a stronger desire to be busy and work hard tend to feel better on psychedelics. If you consider yourself lazy, LSD may not be the drug for you. Finally, users can increase their chances of having a “good trip” by making sure they are in a comfortable, familiar environment. The first day partying in a new country is probably not a great psychedelic setting, so save the shrooms for another time (Studerus et al., 2012). 

Understanding what can happen to one’s body and mind biologically is the first step to determining whether or not psychedelics are right for the user– the phrase “you are what you eat” is very applicable in the instance of magic mushrooms. History and personality are also worth careful consideration, as not all combinations mesh well together. Taking drugs is hard work– having a safe, non-damaging experience takes a lot of research. Being cautious, however, does not take the brain of a rocket scientist. You know yourself the best, but sometimes foreign substances can affect people in ways you could never imagine, and there is always some risk to them. That is why it is important to be flexible– expect the unexpected. Make sure you walk to the right terminal and get on the right flight, but remember that not every trip can be a smooth ride.

References

Guterstam, A., Björnsdotter, M., Gentile, G., & Ehrsson, H. H. (2015). Posterior cingulate cortex integrates the senses of self-location and body ownership. Current Biology, 25(11), 1416-1425.

Johnson, M. W., Griffiths, R. R., Hendricks, P. S., & Henningfield, J. E. (2018). The abuse potential of medical psilocybin according to the 8 factors of the Controlled Substances Act. Neuropharmacology, 142, 143-166. 

Lebedev, A. V., Lövdén, M., Rosenthal, G., Feilding, A., Nutt, D. J., & Carhart‐Harris, R. L. (2015). Finding the self by losing the self: Neural correlates of ego‐dissolution under psilocybin. Human brain mapping, 36(8), 3137-3153.

Mason, N. L., Kuypers, K. P. C., Müller, F., Reckweg, J., Tse, D. H. Y., Toennes, S. W., … & Ramaekers, J. G. (2020). Me, myself, bye: regional alterations in glutamate and the experience of ego dissolution with psilocybin. Neuropsychopharmacology, 45(12), 2003-2011.

Pollan, M. (2019). How to change your mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence. Penguin Books.

Studerus, E., Gamma, A., Kometer, M., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2012). Prediction of psilocybin response in healthy volunteers. PloS one, 7(2), e30800.

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