Challenging experiences can occur when taking psychedelics. Sometimes they are the result of things happening in the environment, such as being around people you don’t trust or being somewhere where you don’t feel safe. Even when psychedelics are taken in an environment that is very safe and supportive, such as in the clinical trials, it is common for people to have challenging aspects of their psychedelic journey. Often these challenging aspects are necessary stepping stones that lead to healing and therapeutic growth. In the moment, however, they can be overwhelming and scary.
While there is a range of experiences that people can reports as challenging, there are several categories of common challenging psychedelic experiences (Barret et al., 2016)
Fear: Some experiences involve a strong component of anxiety, fear, or panic. One might have the sensation that something terrible is going to happen or that something is terribly wrong.
Grief: Some experiences involve feelings of sadness or grief. At times, these feelings may be associated with an identified loss, while at others they may be experienced in a more existential aspect. Some individuals will report strong feelings of despair or emotional suffering.
Physical Distress: Psychedelics can often produce powerful sensations in the body that may be strange or unusual in that they are not part of daily experience. One might feel their heart beating strongly or irregularly. One might feel nauseous and sick to their stomach. Or one might feel shaky and trembly, or have a general sense of being physically uncomfortable.
Death: Some psychedelic experiences involve contemplating one’s mortality. Some people will experience their own death or feel as if they were actually dying. While some death experiences can involve feelings of peace or relief, they can also be scary or frightening.
Insanity: Some challenging experiences involve a sense that the person is going insane or losing their mind. Because psychedelics can disrupt our normal sense of selves to such a great degree and sometimes make language inaccessible, this can lead to a fear that we will “not be put back together” or recover from an altered state.
Isolation: Some difficult experiences involve a profound sense of isolation from people and things. Some report strong feelings of loneliness and separation from others, even if there are people present with them during the experience.
Paranoia: Some people report a sense that others are intending to harm them or are plotting against them. They may feel unsafe in their environment and fear that others have negative intentions, leading to fear and hypervigilance.
Some challenging experiences may take days, weeks, or even years to resolve in the process of integration. This is not meant to scare anyone, but to normalize this experience if it is something you are having. Again, it’s helpful to remember that these challenging experiences are often embedded in an arc of growth and healing.
Becoming conscious of our repressed aspects and memories and integrating them into our awareness is at the core of the psychological and emotional healing process. Psychedelics can both expand our insight and bring out the range of human experience from bliss, to joy, to shame, fear and confusion. Psychedelics can open us up to the full spectrum of human experience, and sometimes it is necessary to contact our pain in order to make space for the light.
Other examples of challenges that may show up during or after a psychedelic experience include:
If you have had a challenging psychedelic experience, here are some tips that you can try on your own.
Integrating a challenging psychedelic experience is an opportunity to transform a potentially difficult experience into an opportunity for learning and transformation.
Sometimes challenging experiences can be isolating and it is helpful for them to be shared with others. This helps us feel less alone and integration is often done in community. Whether you choose to share one-on-one or in a group setting, or with friends and peers, it is important that those you choose to share with are trustworthy. Sharing with others does involve some risk, as some people may respond with judgment or other unhelpful responses that are based in stigma. It is good to be selective about who we open up to. Sharing about our difficult experiences also helps us connect with our humanity of not only the light in psychedelic healing and growth, but also the challenges and struggles that help us feel the full spectrum, so we feel better.
Sometimes difficult experiences reflect our “shadow” or the parts of ourselves that have been pushed aside or repressed because they are painful, embarrassing, or socially unacceptable. Getting to know our shadow is an important step in the path to wholeness. With the right support and integration, the most challenging psychedelic experiences can be gems for the deepest liberation, healing and change. It is good to be extra thoughtful about sharing these shadow parts that have been pushed aside or avoided. This is where having a trained professional can be helpful in holding a compassionate, nonjudgmental space to encourage you to open up about what you are struggling with.