What To Do If You Have a Challenging Psychedelic Experience
Many individuals have had transformative, positive experiences with psychedelic medicine. However, it’s not the only kind of experience possible while working with psychedelics.
The psychedelic experience is vast, and paradoxical in many ways. Experiences can be:
- Deeply human, or profoundly alien and other-worldly
- Entirely physical, or entirely mental
- Calm and gentle, or intense and challenging
Proper preparation, understanding, and ongoing support are emphasized heavily in this work. Specifically, because of the untapped power and raw potential of the psychedelic experience.
This resource will explore the more challenging experiences that you may have while working with psychedelic medicine. This includes the nature of the challenge itself, and what to do if you have recently had a challenging psychedelic experience.
Defining a “challenging experience”
What is a “challenging experience”? Though it may be obvious in the moment, it becomes less clear when you attempt to put it into words.
There are many, many types of challenging experiences. To help orient you, we will place them in three major categories:
- and Spiritual
The different categories of challenges come with their own list of possible experiences, potential remedies, and ways to help you heal.
The physically challenging experience
Physically challenging experiences are the most straightforward. This category of experience is intense on your physical body. It may leave you: drained, nauseous, disoriented, confused, tired, or otherwise.
Examples of physically challenging experiences
Some examples of physically challenging experiences may include:
- Feelings of nausea, or vomiting (sometimes referred to as “purging”)
- High levels of disorientation/dizziness
- Fuzzy memory
- Slurred speech
- Energy-draining, leaving you very tired afterwards
- Pronounced soreness, cramping, or muscle tightness
While challenging to endure in the moment, these experiences often subside within the 24 hours following a psychedelic session.
By working with your care team to ensure proper preparation, set and setting, and dosing protocols before your next session, you will likely be able to correct for, and avoid these experiences in the future.
Sometimes it may be as simple as eating too close to your session. Or, if you’re bringing a lot of physical tension into the session with you, adjusting when your sessions are scheduled.
The emotionally challenging experience
Emotionally challenging experiences can take on a variety of forms, and are often quite personal. They relate specifically to who you are, how you feel, or your past, present, your future.
A trusted mantra in psychedelic medicine circles is that “whatever is coming, is going” or “the obstacle is the way.”
In order to heal and release emotional pain or baggage, you need to work through it. This may involve: revisiting painful memories, grieving loss, reclaiming your anger, forgiving those who have not apologized, or taking a hard look at who you are and how you act.
Examples of emotionally challenging experiences
Examples of emotionally challenging experiences can include:
- Revisiting and “reliving” traumatic experiences from the past
- Becoming aware of suppressed or repressed memories/experiences
- Feeling the pain and grief around the loss of loved ones
- Being confronted with ways you are hypocritical, dishonorable, or otherwise living outside of your personal values
- Becoming upset (angry or sad) about the state of your life, the world, your partner, or a significant aspect of your life
- A sudden revelation that a major aspect of your life (work, relationships, health, etc.) is no longer serving you or in alignment
This list is not exhaustive, there are many other ways psychedelics can bring about challenging emotional experiences.
Herein lies the first remedy for working with challenging experiences. Ask yourself, with as much honesty as possible, “Is the experience itself challenging, or is it challenging because I don’t want to see or feel it”?
Another favorite line in psychedelic medicine work is that “you don’t always get what you want, but you always get what you need.”
Sometimes, the most challenging experiences are blessings in disguise. They force you to directly confront or feel things you may have been avoiding, numbing out, or otherwise not attending to.
Though it is challenging in the moment, it opens the door to fully feeling whatever the emotional material is. We will address this below with techniques on how to work with your challenging experiences.
The existentially challenging experience
Existentially challenging experiences are the hardest to describe, and often the most disorienting experiences in the long term.
This is because existentially challenging experiences can make you question some of your most deeply held beliefs around:
- Yourself, and your behavior
- The state of the world
- The nature of reality
- The validity of time
- The existence of other people
- The existence (or lack thereof) of other beings, entities, or deities
- The gravity of human suffering
- The foundations of meaning
If you have not explored questions of this nature before, being confronted with them during a psychedelic medicine session can be challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
Examples of existentially challenging experiences
Some examples of existentially challenging experiences may include:
- Identifying and ‘feeling’ the pain and suffering of humanity beyond yourself
- A feeling of leaving the body and traveling astral dimensions
- Reliving past traumas, accidents, or arguments
- A vision of your own birth, your own death, or similar
- Confrontation with other beings, entities, deities, or archetypes
- A felt experience of the “timeless now,” calling into question the concept of time
- A feeling of dying, of “no return to normal”, and questioning your own sanity
- An experience of not having a consistent “self”
Challenging existential experiences may feel like some foundational assumptions about the world are no longer there to support you. These can be the most pivotal and positive realizations in a person’s life, but the immediate aftermath of these experiences can be challenging to work with.
Fortunately, these states are not permanent. There are ways you can turn the existentially-charged material into a highly transformative event for yourself.
Techniques to Work With Challenging Experiences
There are many approaches to working with challenging experiences.
An important reminder if you are actively working with a challenging psychedelic experience: You are not alone, this too shall pass, what is coming up is going away, and you have support to help you.
Here a few helpful frameworks that you can use to assist you when processing a challenging psychedelic experience:
1. Rest, recover, and decompress
The first step to working with challenging experiences is to pause, rest, and reassess.
Whether it’s a physically, emotionally, or existentially challenging experience, the first thing to do is nothing. You need your strength and focus. Decompress before moving forward.
Take your self-care seriously. This could be long walks in nature, listening to your favorite music, or spending time with loved ones. Whatever you choose, give your body and your psyche a break.
You’re not giving up, and you’re not letting it go. You’re simply recovering your strength, and centering yourself so that you can return to this experience with strength and calm.
As a rule of thumb, don’t make any significant life changes for at least two weeks after a major psychedelic experience.
It can feel compelling to quit your job, end or start a relationship, travel to a foreign country, join a new religion, or otherwise. Let things settle first.
2. Seek out further support actively
After a challenging experience, it is deceptively easy to convince yourself that this is something you must now endure alone. This is not the case.
You have support, always. Seeking out support can help lighten the load, provide novel insights and outside perspectives, and make the process easier to move through.
Don’t underestimate how helpful a caring, silent presence can be while you work through challenging material.
Further support may take the shape of:
- Speaking with friends or loved ones
- Working with your care team (e.g. your facilitator/guide, clinician, or a therapist)
- Joining online support or integration groups
- Exploring relevant books, articles, or podcasts
There are plenty of support avenues available to you. Many individuals and groups exist specifically to help you work through challenging material from psychedelic experiences.
3. Investigate what specifically made the experience challenging
When you are well-rested and working with your support team, you can move into the heart of the matter: exploring what specifically made the experience challenging.
Simply revisiting your experience, and continuously asking “Why was this challenging?” can take you far on this path.
For example, if you had an emotionally challenging experience due to grieving the loss of a loved one, ask yourself “Why was it challenging”?
You may answer, “Because it hurts to think about their absence.”
Why was the pain challenging? “Because it feels like I can’t handle it.” Okay, but you did, you’re here right now.
Why, then, is the overwhelm challenging? “Because I’m not ready to let them go.”
Ahh, you have arrived at an insight! A core wound, but also a core opportunity. It is in those moments where the seeds of major life transformation are sewn.
Now, you can begin working on the emotional process of letting your loved one go.
Whatever you are working with, investigating why specifically it was challenging can help you reduce the felt intensity of the experience, and arrive at key insights that you can then work on in the future.
Though it may not sound appealing, there is a considerable amount of positive change that is rooted within challenging psychedelic experiences.
The challenges show you exactly where there is work to be done. They become a gift, not to be avoided or brushed off, but to be welcomed as a powerful force of change in your life.
4. Don’t resist
As much as is possible, do not resist the challenging experience.
This may be difficult at the beginning, but resistance only adds another layer of challenge.
You might acknowledge the experience or a challenging thought, saying “I don’t know why you’re here, but I’m listening. What do you have to tell me”?
Whatever that answer is, journal about it. Remember our mantra from earlier: Whatever is coming, is going.
The reason this experience happened isn’t to fight with it or be hurt by it, but so that it can be consciously released. You no longer need to hold the weight of that experience, but it needs your “permission” to do so. Release it, and as cheesy as it may sound, thank it.
Curiosity, as we covered in the last framework, is a fantastic way to move away from resisting a challenging experience.
Get curious. Why did this happen? What is it trying to show you, teach you, and make you feel or understand? Curiosity will lead you to the message, feeling, and healing that you need.
5. Trust that this happened for your benefit
At Mindbloom, we believe in the "TLO" mantra: Trust. Let Go. Be Open.
This applies post-experience as much as it does while you are in a medicine session.
- Trust. Trust deeply that this happened for your benefit, your healing, and your growth. Trust it’s making you stronger, more resilient, and more whole.
- Let Go. You don’t need to cling to these experiences. Let them bubble up and out of you, like steam from the ocean floor. Don’t resist, don’t cling, don’t assume. Let them go, as best as you can. Working with your care team will assist in the process of letting go.
- Be Open. Being open can be difficult, especially when faced with a challenging experience. Be open to receiving the wisdom of the experience. Be open to finding the way through it. And be open to the change that lies on the other side of overcoming this challenging experience.
Working with a challenging psychedelic experience isn’t often easy. Whether physical, emotional, or existential, these can be confronting or confusing.
They can also bring about the greatest healing experiences and powerful transformations that the psychedelic experience can provide. They will open your heart, humble you, and make you resilient.
While they can seem overwhelming in the moment, time heals all challenges.
Remember if you are working with a challenging experience that you are not alone, you have support, and you can work with the challenging experience to find gems of wisdom, compassion, and love within them.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. If you are in a life-threatening situation, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at +1 (800) 273-8255, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.