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psychedelics process emotions

You might have heard the advice that it’s best to not take psychedelics when you’re not feeling good. General mainstream advice for DIY users is to ‘wait until you’re in a better place’.

If your aim is to feel good during the session itself, then I would agree: wait until you’re in a better place. But when taking psychedelics for reasons of personal growth or learning, this maxim may be trumped by deeper considerations. 

Trippers With Severe Depression & Anxiety

Two groundbreaking studies have helped bring credibility and prominence to mainstream psychedelics based on the psychedelic experiences of people who would not be considered to be feeling good. At Imperial College London, their landmark study explored using  psilocybin to help  those with treatment-resistant depression, in other words, a persistent depression that many treatments have failed to ameliorate. In another landmark study at Johns Hopkins, psilocybin was shown to alleviate end of life anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients. In both these cases, participants clearly faced challenges in their emotional state.

The ‘set’ of the psychedelic tenet of set and setting generally refers to the mindset of the tripper and is broadly understood as the psychonaut’s internal state. This can include their outlook, how they’re feeling, and their mood.

However, when it comes to having a beneficial session, I would say that mindset is a far broader concept than mood, feelings, or emotional state.

Mindset Beyond Emotional State

As well as feelings and emotions, mindset includes how the experience is framed. How we frame something shapes how we see it: it is our perspective on what we are doing. Is the session billed as a time to have fun? Or is it understood as a rare and precious opportunity for learning? These intentions determine how we approach the session. Is it approached with respect? Is it approached with trust in how the experience may unfold?

Those taking part in the studies I’ve mentioned were prepared accordingly in matters of mindset; you see the psilocybin flight instructions here. Their sessions were not approached as a fun time with friends, but with a formality more akin to that of a ceremony or sesshin. Accordingly, participants were directed to be open to whatever arises, to trust in the experience, and to let go of any preconceived ideas about how the session ‘should’ go.

If the mindset is right, the person adequately prepared, in a safe setting and sufficiently supported during the experience, and with support systems in place for afterwards, and  then I would say that tripping when you’re feeling low can be one of the most useful and dare I say obvious times to trip.

storm sunlight

My Experiences

I have personally taken psychedelics in a session format in some of the more rocky emotional patches of my life. 

One example is the time my parents were separating and I was coming to terms with the fact I would be seeing the home I’d always known being put up for sale. My mood and emotional state at the time was not what would be described as good; I was crying on the train up to do my session. However, I approached the occasion with great respect and formality. The resulting experience provided me with enormous relief and understanding, and I now see it as one of the landmark healing experiences of my life.

I have used psychedelics at various other times when going through bumpy patches and difficult chapters – at times when it might be considered ‘not the best time to trip’.

On these occasions, psychedelics have allowed me to see what was beneath, to really be in touch with my deeper, hidden, often repressed and unconscious thoughts and feelings, and given me a chance to process them.

I have seen shadow parts of myself, parts of myself that I was ashamed of. Some examples include a desire to earn more money, a desire to have more creative control on a project, and a sadness that was hidden. I avoided them because of various unconscious beliefs I held around them: that wanting more money means I’m greedy; that wanting more control means I’m power hungry; and that I shouldn’t feel sad about a certain event because I didn’t do anything wrong. 

The experiences I’m describing helped me to see all of these things and better understand myself. This was the first step towards acknowledging these hidden thoughts and as such, accepting them. Psychedelics have been such honest allies, revealing things inside me that I’ve found hard to accept. 

In every one of these sessions I had rough journeys and difficult experiences, and each time, I have felt so grateful for the opportunity.

These are tools which have helped me tremendously, through good times, but also especially through the bad times. 

 

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The picture trip is a technique that was employed by a pioneer of psychedelic therapy, Leo Zeff. It is done as part of the preparation and also during the psychedelic session itself.

This description of the method is from the book about Leo: The Secret Chief Revealed.

Preparation

To do this exercise you will need to gather some photos before the trip. These photos will form a history of your life. Go back home or get them wherever you are or write for them. Get all the pictures that you can and bring them to wherever you are.

Pictures to Gather:

  • Yourself, one at age two and one every two years thereafter through adolescence, up to adulthood.
  • Two pictures each of your mother, father and any siblings; one when they were young but you can still remember them, and a recent one.
  • Pictures of any other family members that are or were significant in your life.
  • A picture of your husband/wife, or any woman or man who has had great significance in your life. Lovers, current or past. If you’re married, wedding pictures.
  • A picture of a grandparent that was significant in your life.
  • If you have children, a picture of them when they were about two years old, and a recent one.
  • Any other significant pictures. Any pictures with an emotional charge.

As you collect the photos

“I ask them to select the pictures in this manner: Gather them all together—boxes, albums, however they are, and put them in front of you, and start with one. The top one or anything like that.

Pick it up and look at it. Just look at it to see what you experience in connection with that picture. Look at it a little while. You may not experience anything. It’s all right. Put it aside, pick up the next one, then look at it. If it provokes any memories, kinda sit with the memories a little bit, let them go where they want to go. Whatever feelings you have, allow them to be there. Whenever you come across a picture that’s on the list, set it aside in a separate pile. Go through all the pictures you’ve got, every single one of them, doing that. You may have to have two or three sittings to do it.

I ask them to do it no further away than a week before the trip, as close to the time of the trip as they can. I want to tell you something. That really turns them on. When they come they’re in the middle of their trip.”

During the session

A few hours into the trip, when you’re functional and can move around, get up and sit down at a table to do the picture trip.

Start out with pictures of yourself. Take the first one.

“Just look at it, just look at it and see what you experience. Look at it as long as you want to. When you’re through looking at it, hand it back. If you have anything to say, fine. Say it. If not, you don’t have to say anything.”

One at a time go through the pictures.

“The pictures, they don’t react much to the two- to four-year-old pictures. Some time around the age of six is a very significant picture for them. That’s the point in life where we lose our naturalness and we start taking on the acts of the world and behaving the way people tell us to and start squelching our own naturalness. Frequently they get to that picture and they start to cry. And cry and cry and cry.”

This can be really powerful exercise and help to stir things up or move things around in the emotional body. The beginning of these movements can help to shift something inside. The first time I used the photo trip remains one of my singular most powerful and releasing journeys of my life and as Leo says happens with most people, I cried and cried, and cried. It was beautiful. Try it out!

You can find the book about Leo as a pdf on the MAPS website: The Secret Chief Revealed. I can absolutely recommend it for both journeyers and tripsitters.

What is an LSD experience like? This is a question I often get asked by people who are curious about the psychedelic experience and who just want to know: what is it actually like?

One word that is often used when trying to describe the experience is ineffable. Which means that it cannot be put into words. However this kind of relegates language and is also, dare I say it, a little lazy. That said, I do understand that it is an extremely difficult experience to describe.

subjective effects of lsd katrin preller

Psychedelic researcher Katrin Preller

Last year I went to a series of talks put on by the MIND foundation at their Betahaus hub in Berlin. One of these talks was by Katrin Preller on the topic of social cognition and self experience. As part of her presentation Katrin presented the subjective effects of LSD as reported by study participants. This is an excellent summary and I think answers the question very well, with a nice succinct list of aspects of the experience.

Subjective effects of LSD

  • Audio-visual synesthesia
  • Elemental imagery
  • Changed meaning of percepts
  • Blissful state
  • Complex imagery
  • Experience of unity
  • Insightfulness
  • Disembodiment
  • Impaired control and cognition
  • Spiritual experience
  • Anxiety

The diagram below shows us how strongly each of the effects were felt. As you can see, audio-visual synesthesia scored highest, and anxiety lowest.
subjective effects lsd schmidt et al 2015

Subjective effects of LSD. Schmidt et al. 2015

You can see Katrin’s whole talk here:

One thing that it is worth noting is that a psychedelic experience depends largely on three factors; set, setting and dose. The variance between these factors can totally change the experience, as well as the type of person who has the experience. For example, if a low-doses was taken at a party I don’t think spiritual experience or disembodiment would come up so much. Still, I think the list holds up as an excellent summary of the effects.

What is the ideal mindset for a psychedelic journey? I would say the best approach is that of the explorer.

So. what does it mean to be an explorer?

Openness

A good explorer is open to possibilities of experience. When an explorer goes into a new territory or land, they need to remain open minded, letting go of pre-judgments or expectations, if they really want to learn about the landscape, terrain, peoples or culture. Having a fixed idea of what something should be or look like limits the possibility and potential to see it in other ways. This limits the potential for what can be learned in an experience.

For example, if you have a very specific idea that you should feel love and joy and understanding but in fact you feel fear and sadness, then you may get caught in thoughts of “this isn’t what its supposed to be, its not what I signed up for“ and miss a great opportunity that the fear and sadness presented.

Upon encountering the unexpected in a new place, whether it may be shocking or disappointing, a good traveller doesn’t judge “that shouldn’t be there”, they openly accept.

Being at war with what is actually arising is not the way. Being open to and accepting what comes up allows you to work with what is there. This is where I trust comes in.

Trust

Trust that whatever comes up is part of the experience you are supposed to have. Psychedelics are amplifiers for consciousness meaning they bring up what is deep down inside you. They will pull up things from your subconscious to your conscious mind. So trust that whatever arises in the session is something that is deep within you and is an opportunity for you to know yourself more deeply.

Curiosity

Any good explorer is curious about the terrain they are exploring, their surroundings and the situations they find themselves in. Curiosity brings attention to detail and is the bedrock of a deep learning. Curiosity brings a wonder to things and a richer and deeper experience.

Curiosity comes in the I of the RAIN process

Anything that arises in a psychedelic session can be looked at with a curiosity. For example, say you start feeling annoyed. Perhaps there is some noise coming from your neighbors that you haven’t planned on being part of your experience. Curiosity can transmute this feeling of annoyance and irritation to an object for investigation. You can then ask:

OK, why do I feel annoyed about this sound? What am I believing that causes me to be annoyed? How do I know I feel annoyed? How does it feel in my body? What sensations arise in my body? What is this felt experience of being annoyed?

Maybe it could be a feeling of worry and perhaps thoughts come up like “oh no I took too much, this is too strong for me, I can’t handle this“. Again, after recognizing this you can investigate with a curiosity:

What is this feeling of worry? What is it I’m believing that makes me worry? How do I feel this in my body?

Dig in to those sensations. Really look at them. What is their substance? What is their tone or colour?

“Look the monster in the eye and move towards it… Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’ Look for the darkest corner in the basement, and shine your light there.”

From Bill Richards’ Flight Instructions,
given to participants of John Hopkins psilocybin studies

The ability to hold this curious approach to difficult feelings can require mindfulness and a lot of patience. Having a tripsitter there to be with you and if necessary, talk you through it, can be a huge help. In the long term, meditation is good practice to develop both patience and mindfulness.

Adventure

Another aspect of the explorer’s mindset is that of the sense of adventure. To head in to unknown territory can be scary and nerve-racking, but it can also be very exciting. Seeing your psychedelic journey as an adventure acknowledges all those feelings and makes space for them.

Jim Fadiman expressly called psychedelic journeyers explorers in his now classic and highly influential book

Experimenter

I also find approaching psychedelic sessions as exploration via experiments to be very beneficial. I find it helps to relieve pressure and let go of the feeling that it’s necessary to figure everything out and receive all the teachings that you ever wanted all in the one session. If you learn anything then the experiment was a success.  You have new data that you can use to move forward on your path of growth. This again ties in to not having too many expectations.

“Think progress, not perfection“
Ryan Holiday

Trying to push too hard, to get the absolute maximum best optimum psychedelic experience can actually have an adverse effect and lead to a less rewarding experience.

After all each psychedelic experience is only one of many experiences in your life, and trying to control the experience too much or confining it to certain ideas or expectations that you have about how it should turn out or make you feel will be counter productive.

A kind and gentle approach, acknowledging where you are and what you are capable of, at that time, whilst still making an honest and sincere effort, is the best way forward…

Kindness

Finally I think a very useful approach is that of kindness. Kindness to yourself and kindness to anything that arises within the session.

Relating back to openneness, any idea of what is supposed to happen in a session can lead to a clash between expectation and reality.

If thoughts such as “I’m not doing this right” or “I should have been paying more attention” or any kind of such negative self talk comes up, then remember that you cannot do it wrong. I find it very helpful to remember that I can always be kind to myself.

Cultivating The Explorer’s Mindset

The explorer’ mindset can be cultivated in your day-to-day life. The next time you go out for a walk, look around your neighbourhood as if it was for the first time that you saw everything, as if you were a tourist. Be curious about the color of the paint on the buildings, the style of the architecture, the textures, the smells in the air, the types of food, the people on the streets. Suspend your judgment and be open to and accepting of what is there. Cultivate this mindset and carry it with you into your next psychedelic journey. Have a great and curious day, and explore!

Self-care is an important part of integrating a psychedelic experience and in general some good practices are:

  • Spending time in nature
  • Meditation
  • Adequate sleep
  • Exercise
  • Clean diet
  • Journaling

However integration is an individual process and will work best if you personalise and find things that work best for you.

What is Self Care?

Self-care is often be understood as things which promote health, rest and relaxation such as going for a walk or taking hot a bath. However, a much more effective way of understanding self-care is by broadening its definition to anything that replenishes your energetic reservoir. Anything that energizes you, replenishes you or (re) charges you in some way can be considered a self-care practice. This includes activities that really light you up, nourish your soul, and invite your presence. Any activities that fall in to these categories can be considered excellent self-care practices and used to develop your own personalized integration system.

Today I’d like to share an exercise in two parts that can help you to develop your own personalized self care kit.

Creating a Personalised Self Care Kit

1. Make a To Be List

We all have long and seemingly unending to do lists, but what about a to be list? Take a moment to journal your answers to these questions:

  • What are the inner experiences that you love?
  • What are the inner experiences where you feel most at home?

Examples: calm, peaceful, inspired, confident, creative, playful, at ease, humorous, loving, adventurous, kind, powerful, motivated, courageous, disciplined etc.

2. Which activities?

Once you have your to be list, journal answers to:

  • What nourishes those states?
  • What activities help to cultivate those states?
  • What are the activities that really light you up?
  • What activities really serve your soul?

Examples: listening to music, travel, writing, hanging out with friends, cooking, going to see a film, creating art, exercise, cuddling, going camping, getting a massage, going on a retreat etc.

When creating your list of activities do not be afraid to really personalize it and include activities which most people wouldn’t generally expect to be a self-care or recharging practice. Somethings which may energize or inspire you may seem strange to other people but don’t be afraid to write what is true for you. This can really make a big difference and this is the big advantage of creating a personalized self care kit rather than following generic self care practices. You can build a much more complete kit for yourself by including things that are unique to you.

It could be watching a video from a specific influencer that you find inspiring, or reading a challenging book. Some things that are unique to my kit are watching a music documentary, learning to play a song on the guitar and jamming it out with the volume cranked up, and watching a movie with one of my favourite comedy actors.

“In the trance of daily life we can be so organised around shoulds that we lose touch with what we love”
– Tara Brach

Let what you love be what you do

Try to really honour yourself and create space and time for the activities on your list. If you are the type of person who tends to slip in to prioritizing work or doing things for other people ahead of yourself it can be very helpful to actually schedule in your self-care activities. Put them in your calendar and protect them as you would any important meeting. After all, it is a very important meeting: a meeting with life, for yourself. If you think that sounds selfish, consider that you won’t have anything to give to others if you are depleted and empty. Caring for others begins with caring for ourselves.

Weaving Self Care in to Integration

Making time for these activities is especially important in the days and weeks following a psychedelic experience. Psychedelics increase neuroplasticity which means that you are more able to create new connections between neurons in the brain. In plainer English, this means it is a great opportunity for re-wiring; creating new patterns of thought and behaviour. This is a way of wearing in newer, healthier and more self compassionate grooves into your day-to-day life. It can be useful to do this exercise before a psychedelic experience so you have your personalized kit ready afterwards.

Best of luck and take care, of yourself