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Fear Associated with Psychedelics

Getting beyond the fear of trying a psychedelic for the first time

If you’re new to psilocybin, it’s understandable to have some apprehension about having a challenging experience

Written By Jennifer Chesak, Author of The Psilocybin Handbook for Women

I’m coming up on my two-year anniversary of when I first tried psychedelics, specifically psilocybin. The anniversary has me reflecting on fear of the unknown. Many people ask me how I got over the apprehension that often comes with trying psychedelics for the first time. So I thought I’d share.

In the first chapter of The Psilocybin Handbook for Women, I detail my first psilocybin experience. And the introduction shares a little about my background. As a science and medical journalist, I specialize in writing about the health of people assigned female at birth. In the years leading up to landing my book deal, I had also written about the newer research coming out about psychedelics. So it made sense for me to merge the two topics into a book. But the big issue was that, although I had researched psychedelics at length and had been around others using psychedelics quite a bit, I had never had my own experience. I knew I couldn’t write a book on psilocybin without trying it though, and I wanted to try it, but I admit I was nervous.

I was worried about several things, but perhaps one of my biggest fears was having a negative experience that I’d have to ride out. This is the fear other people most often express to me when they’re hesitant. So that’s what I’ll focus on in this article.

We often fear the things we don’t know enough about or can’t control. One of the things that helped me overcome my fear of trying psychedelics was to read as much as possible about the psilocybin experience. It’s different for everyone, but some commonalities exist as to what’s going on in the brain and body. Chapter three of my book dives into the details of this, and if psilocybin is something you’re considering, I hope you’ll give it a read. Learning about the neurobiology really helped me prepare for my journey. Preparation is crucial.

We can’t control a psilocybin experience. It’s often said that you don’t get the trip you want, you get the one you need. That’s because the mushroom works with what’s already in your mind. What you can control is your set and setting and your reactions in the moment, however. Set is your mindset going into a trip. Setting is where you are, what’s around you, and whom you’re with. And your reactions have to do with your ability to emotionally regulate when needed.

Let’s focus on setting first. Choose a setting that is comfortable to you, one that is peaceful and will help you get the most out of your journey. I have nothing against people using psilocybin recreationally, but if your aim is for having a therapeutic experience, choosing a festival or other highly stimulating environment may not be conducive to that. Be mindful of who is around you. I opted to have a personalized retreat experience rather than going on a retreat with many participants. I did not want other people’s experiences to interfere with my own.

Now let’s think about set. Again, this is your mindset going into a journey. Some people have specific things they hope to focus on during a psilocybin experience. And that’s fine. But research shows that setting the intention to be open to the experience and to avoid resisting it offers some protection against having a challenging trip. Note that I used the word “challenging” rather than “bad.” Challenging things may come up for you. However, research shows that even when people note having had a challenging time on a psychedelic, they often rank the experience as one of the top 10 most profound of their lives.

Keep in mind that past traumas, or current life difficulties, might rear their heads. If you read chapter three of my book, you’ll learn about the mechanisms in the brain that help us view trauma differently when on a psychedelic. In a nutshell, the usual triggers and fear we associate with our traumas tend to be absent while in this altered state. This can allow you to see trauma differently and reprocess it for healing. After a psychedelic experience, integration is crucial. This is the process of analyzing and learning from your journey, and it furthers the reprocessing of any difficult topics.

When trauma initially comes up during a psilocybin session, you may have the instinct to resist it, which can generate some anxiety. Part of letting the mushroom take you where it’s going to take you, even if you don’t want to go there, involves tapping back into your parasympathetic nervous system. We have two main branches of the autonomic nervous system: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is your “fight-flight-freeze” response. And the parasympathetic nervous system is your “rest-digest” response. These two systems work somewhat in opposition to each other, meaning that if you’re in fight-or-flight mode, you are not calm.

At first, if trauma comes up for you during a journey, you may feel your sympathetic nervous system fire up, with increased heart rate, breath rate, temperature, etc. If you can tap back into your parasympathetic nervous system, you can often get the sympathetic nervous system to chill out. A trick that usually works for me in any anxiety-provoking situation is box breathing. Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four before repeating the process. Breathe, and remember that you are OK and that the mushroom is there to help you.

I encountered a challenging section during my journey. When it first came up, I felt anxious, but reminded myself not to resist it. The anxiety quickly subsided, and I was able to focus on and reprocess some tough topics without fear. Then on the other side of the challenging section, I felt a beautiful sense of peace and euphoria. And I can honestly rate my experience as one of the top 10 most profound of my life.

July 2024

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