What to Think About When You’re Thinking About Psychedelics
#1 – The psychedelics most commonly used for mental health
First, you have the so-called classical psychedelics:
- Psilocybin (magic mushrooms)
- LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)
- DMT (dimethyl tryptamine)
- 5-MeO-DMT (5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine, which some people call The TOAD)
Then there are the non-traditional psychedelics:
- MDMA (also known as ecstasy or molly)
These are all psychedelics because psychedelic means “mind-revealing.”
When you ingest these different plants or fungi or chemicals, the contents of your mind will come to your awareness in a whole new way. Because these substances hit different targets in your brain than you’re used to, they create psychological and physical experiences that feel totally new.
Of course, there are plenty of other mind-altering medicines out there that people take for all sorts of reasons (including, but not limited to, cannabis). You’ll also notice that I didn’t mention ayahuasca, which has recently gained massive popularity. That’s because ayahuasca, which was originally developed by Indigenous folks in South America, is simply a method for preparing DMT. Contrary to popular belief, ayahuasca isn’t actually a distinct kind of psychedelic.
#2 – The major pros and cons of psychedelics
PRO: If done within a systematic, intentional program of therapy and integration, every one of the psychedelics above can facilitate lasting, positive mental-health changes. The reasons are many and complicated, but that’s it in a nutshell.
CON: Right now, there is only one psychedelic that’s completely legal in the United States: ketamine. All of the others I mention above are either completely illegal, or are decriminalized in some places. (Some are gaining legal status in one or two places, if used under certain circumstances.)
On the whole, the use of most psychedelics constitutes a massive gray area. Even if a state were to decriminalize one—or create a legal structure for its use—the federal government hasn’t taken those steps yet. Translation: You’re taking legal risks if you delve into the scene.
CON: For most of these substances, the purity of the substance is unknown or unclear. Since they’re illegal, it’s hard to be sure that your source can be fully trusted—and there’s no regulation to confirm that the product itself is any good.
CON: For some of these medicines, dosage can also be hard to determine. For example, take ayahuasca, which is DMT delivered as a tea. While it’s possible to estimate doses to a certain degree, it’s very hard to standardize doses.
Every person brews tea a little bit differently, right? Not only that, but every batch of ayahuasca comes out differently, depending on a lot of factors. One of those factors is the specific plants the brewer uses for the huasca: aka the part of the tea that keeps your body from immediately metabolizing the DMT.
(Fun fact: It’s usually the different plants used for the huasca that causes the digestive discomfort some people get when they drink ayahuasca. Some batches will be more nauseating than others, but you won’t know which and you won’t know why!)
PRO: One of these psychedelics is legal, and there’s established clarity around sourcing and dosage. That (non-traditional) psychedelic is ketamine. To learn more about it and how it’s used for mental health—in language that’s down-to-earth and easy to understand—you can check out my book, The Beginner’s Guide to Ketamine Therapy for Mental Health.
CON: It can take your body anywhere from 4 to 12 hours to metabolize most psychedelics. (For ibogaine, bump that number up to 24 or even 48 hours.) Those that don’t take so long to metabolize—including vaporized DMT or 5-MeoDMT—-are sadly not on track to be legalized any time soon.
Do all of these drawbacks mean that you shouldn’t take advantage of the huge mental-health effects these substances can have on trauma, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse? I’m not here to promote the use of illegal substances, so that’s a decision you’ll have to make on your own.
That said, there are US jurisdictions where certain psychedelics are decriminalized, as well as certain countries where certain psychedelics are legal. But being under the influence of a psychedelic, for the first time, in a foreign country, with complete strangers, definitely isn’t going to be the right choice for everyone!
#3 – What to expect from the physical experience of psychedelics
At mental-health dosing levels—as opposed to doses people might take to “party” or as social drugs—any psychedelic other than ketamine will send your energy level sky-high.
This is especially true for MDMA, because it essentially has the same energetic effect on your nervous system as amphetamines (think Adderall or Dexedrine). Yes, MDMA is known as “the love drug,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not also going to feel physically uncomfortable when you ingest a quantity appropriate for mental health purposes.
The range of possible physical experiences you could have on psychedelics is both wild and varied. You could:
- Get nauseated
- Throw up
- Feel ecstatic
- Feel terrified
- Want to scream and run around
- Curl up in a ball
- Feel like you’re having an exorcism or speaking in tongues
- And so on and so forth
Because everyone’s metabolism and temperament are different, those factors will also alter the flow of your subjective experience you have. If you aren’t accustomed to—and comfortable with—allowing yourself to express feelings physically and/or vocally as energy levels rise in your body… Well, I’m sorry to say you’re likely to be extremely uncomfortable for hours—because, remember, these psychedelics can take anywhere from 4 to 24 hours to make their way through your metabolism.
None of what I’m telling you is meant to turn you off from traditional psychedelics. I just want to warn you before you potentially overwhelm yourself so much that you turn away from traditional psychedelics. Before going down the rabbit hole, so to speak, I’d suggest that you spend time getting comfortable with the vocal and physical expression of your feelings.
This can be accomplished through any number of programs:
There are many more, and the one you choose is not important. What is important: allowing, and building awareness of, the movement and expression of energy through your body. Mastering this ability will make taking a mental-health dose of a traditional psychedelic not only a memorable experience, but a valuable arrow in your mental-health quiver as you unravel any dysfunctional patterns holding you back.
There you have it, folks: Psychedelics 101. For more information, check out my other blogs on psychedelics.