Nothing is risk free—and this includes psychedelic use. While there are some negative consequences associated with psychedelic use, psychedelic safety is possible for almost everyone. When compared to other types of drugs, we can see that psychedelics are much safer, both mentally and physiologically. What’s more, even the most challenging psychedelic experiences [LINK] can provide the most healing in the long term.
Nothing is Risk Free
Everything we do involves risk. From eating certain foods, to walking down the street, to even breathing; simply being alive comes with a lot of risk. Yes, we know that certain things are riskier than others and that there are some things that should be avoided. But, should psychedelics be included in that list? Over the past few decades, if you had asked some anti-drug campaigners that question, you likely would have been met with a resounding yes.
Lately however, psychedelics have been getting a cultural makeover—and for good reason. While many of the ones we’ll discuss in this article (LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, cannabis) still remain federally scheduled drugs and are currently illegal in the United States, the world is coming to terms with the fact that these substances aren’t as dangerous as they were once perceived to be.
The misconception that psychedelics will make you permanently crazy is just that: a misconception. For many psychedelic users, the overall consensus is that these substances will actually “make you sane.” However, it’s important to recognize that psychedelic experiences bring about temporary mental and physiological changes that alter your state. While this inherently poses several risks, they are few and far between and generally not found in isolation of other factors (adulterated substances, unsafe environment, pre-existing medical condition, etc.) Negative consequences associated with psychedelics are important to be aware of as well as the proper harm reduction techniques that mitigate them.
The enduring risks of psychedelic use are perhaps the biggest cause of alarm for users. Will you have an acid flashback 40 years after an experience with LSD? Will you develop a mental disorder that burdens the rest of your life after a few mushroom caps? There are certainly enduring and adverse effects that have been reported, but likely not as severe as the media and the government would have you believe.
In one study evaluating nearly 2,000 people following an experience with psilocybin, 89% of survey respondents reported benefitting from the experience, even though some of those people also responded that it was a “most psychologically difficult or challenging experience.” Of the nearly 2,000 people, three reported that it marked the beginning of long-lasting psychotic symptoms and 7.6% sought help for negative psychological symptoms.
What does this mean for someone worried about an adverse experience with psychedelics? Well, it is important to look at the context as there are several factors that can play into a “bad trip” [LINK] and any sustained enduring mental health problems that may follow. Of those surveyed, many didn’t know what dose of psilocybin was consumed, 25% reported being alone during the experience, and only 25% had a “guide” or “sitter” present. In addition, some survey participants responded that they used cannabis and alcohol in combination with the psilocybin.
Additionally, many who sought treatment for psychological symptoms after the experience had done so prior to their experience with psychedelics. This could mean either those with treatment histories are more vulnerable to potential adverse effects of psilocybin or that these symptoms existed previously regardless of the psychedelic experience. Similarly, this study indicates the importance of a psychological screening or, at the very least, psychological preparation, prior to an experience with psychedelics.
Set and setting (short for mindset and physical setting) are crucial components of psychedelic safety, and it’s important for the user to be in a conducive emotional state and a comfortable and safe environment. Preparation before, during, and after the experience are vital—this is exactly what we help our clients with at Psychedelic Passage. Additionally, having the support of a ”guide” or “sitter” is associated with a more positive experience, as is taking an appropriate dose. When these factors are considered and prepared for, the already-low rates of negative consequences become even lower. This is why we are such strong advocates for ceremonial style psychedelic use coupled with adequate preparation before and after the experience. If you need help preparing for a psychedelic experience or selecting a ceremonial circle, reach out to one of our coaches today.
In the same study mentioned above, 11% of the nearly 2,000 respondents reported that they put themselves or others at risk. While some individuals may experience frightening illusions or troubling thoughts, these generally don’t escalate. However, although very rare, some cases of dangerous behavior with psychedelics have been reported.
Many of us have heard stories of people who have ended their lives by jumping out of a window or falling off a roof during or after a psychedelic experience. But it is difficult to discern whether these individuals had mental health issues prior to the psychedelic experience or were in unprepared or unsupervised conditions. That’s why psychological screening, support, and harm reduction principles are of the utmost importance. Nonetheless, these are tragic instances and part of the reason why we created Psychedelic Passage: to increase the health and safety of those exploring the psychedelic journey. Our coaches are here to help you adequately prepare for your next psychedelic experience and to provide you with supervised environments to heal through entheogens.
High Dose Risks & Side Effects
While most psychedelics don’t have toxic limits (or if they do, they’re insanely high: the toxic dose of LSD is 1,000 x larger than an effective dose!), there is one substance that presents a significant risk at higher doses. MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly) is safe at certain dosages, like those used in therapy, but presents neurotoxic risks at high doses.
There have been some side effects reported with psychedelic use. These are typically short-lived and aren’t associated with severe long-term complications. Psychedelics can increase blood pressure and pulse. They can also lead to dizziness, tremors, weakness, drowsiness, blurred vision, nausea, and dilated pupils. While flashbacks, called Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), are possible, they’re generally not met with much worry and tend to disappear on their own. If you’re looking for more detail, we’ve written extensive articles that detail how psychedelics work in the body [LINK] and how they work in the brain [LINK].
Harm reduction is one of the most important aspects of a profound and effective psychedelic experience. Although there are risks, when you engage with a coach or mentor who has had similar goals and experiences, you’ll feel supported in your safe and responsible journey with psychedelics. Click here to connect with a psychedelic coach that will teach you the principles of harm reduction and adequate preparation.
Psychedelics Compared to Other Drugs
While some serious adverse events have been reported with psychedelics, they are extremely rare. To highlight the distinction, it’s helpful to contrast the risks of psychedelics with the risks of other drugs. Overall, the link between psychedelic use and mental health problems is weak, if at all existent. A recent study involving a large population found that out of 130,000 adults in the US, there were no significant associations between lifetime use of psychedelics and negative mental health issues. Unlike many other drugs, psychedelics are not associated with harm to the brain or body organs and are not known to cause compulsive use or addiction.
While some psychological risks have been reported with psychedelics, they’re not nearly as common or potentially fatal as the risks of other drugs. Hallucinogens aren’t considered to be toxic and have not been associated with organ damage. On the other hand, opioids (such as percocet, oxycontin, and heroin) can cause respiratory depression and psychomotor stimulants (such as cocaine) can cause cardiac stress—both of which have the potential to be fatal. Alcohol can lead to liver damage, high levels of dependence, and is thought to be 114 times more dangerous than cannabis. We probably don’t even need to mention cigarettes and how they compare to psychedelics—but they contribute to 480,000 deaths each year.
Comparatively speaking, overdoses on psychedelics are rare—rare enough that no specific data was found for this article. Perhaps highlighting how psychedelics differ from other substances, a study was reported earlier in 2020 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs that concluded that not only was an LSD overdose non-fatal, but that it resulted in “significant improvements in mood systems.” These included manic episode reductions and no reports of fatality, even when the dose was 550 times higher than that of a normal recreational dose!
Psychedelic Safety: Harm Reduction Practices
Although there are some negative consequences associated with psychedelic use, almost all of them can be mitigated by using a few simple harm reduction practices. Psychedelic safety is not only possible, but is actually the norm when incorporating the following principles (courtesy of Zendo Project):
- Create a safe space. Ever heard about the importance of set and setting? This has been one of the most important parts of psychedelic use, and dates back to the 1960s. It doesn’t mean that you need crystals, incense, and spiritual artifacts from around the world, but it does mean that you need a calm environment. It’s important to be mentally and physically in the right state for a psychedelic experience (enough sleep, food, water, etc.). When it comes to your environment, blankets and water are helpful, as is a space that feels safe and has access to a toilet while being far from potentially dangerous areas (i.e. busy roads, dangerous machinery, etc.)
- Sitting, not guiding. Whether you’re the “sitter” or you’re looking for someone to join you for your psychedelic experience, it’s important that compassion, trust, and acceptance are features of your relationship. Everyone should feel secure and safe in this space. If you’re with someone who’s ingested psychedelics, it’s important to let their experience unfold without your guidance. Your presence will be enough—no need to try to interpret what they say or do or pose questions about their journey.
- Talk through, not down. If something negative comes up, it’s helpful to connect with it, even if uncomfortable. Avoiding or resisting certain feelings or thoughts (as long as they don’t involve harm) might diminish the experience as a whole. As long as no one is presenting danger to themselves or anyone else, going through the whole process instead of avoiding it is healthiest.
- Difficult is not the same as bad. Difficult experiences are a feature of most encounters with psychedelics and are, many times, where most of the growth and learning comes from. Fear and difficult emotions can be welcomed, and curiosity is generally a good approach to take when new thoughts or feelings arise.
Safe psychedelic use is often associated with support received from other people. But it is important that those people are trained, knowledgeable, and mentally, physically, and spiritually capable of holding space for you. Joining our mentorship program pairs you with an experienced psychonaut that can ensure that you’ll receive tips, insights, and support from a mentor who shares your goals and values and who truly cares about you and your personal experiences with psychedelics. Experience it for yourself, connect with a psychedelic coach today.
Psychedelics have been used safely for millennia. While they sometimes produce difficult emotions or thoughts, these are generally where the most growth and development arise. However, like with any substance we ingest, it’s important that we’re aware of all of the potential risks so that we can take appropriate steps to minimize them. While psychedelics are a safe and positive experience for most of the people that use them, it’s recommended that if you have a history of mental illness you consult a doctor or therapist before any psychedelic experience. If a medical professional has cleared you and you feel called to pursue the psychedelic experience with the guidance of trained professionals, we recommend setting up an appointment to talk with one of our coaches today.