I had my first (and only) psychedelic experience in 2017.
At the time, I was going through a transition in life. I had quit my job with no concrete plan about what to do next, and was looking for some direction.
I had been curious about the power of psychedelics for a long time, having heard countless stories of people taking them and having a life changing experience. Everyone from business leaders (Bill Gates), scientists (Richard Feynman), philosophers (Alan Watts) and comedians (Bill Hicks) had experimented with them at some point.
Steve Jobs called it one of the most important things he ever did.
The science seemed pretty promising too. Imperial College London have recently launched the world’s first Centre for Psychedelics Research. Led by Dr Robin Carhart-Harriss, Imperial’s Research Group have been exploring the use of psychedelics in mental health care, and how they can be used for treating conditions such as severe depression and PTSD.
On the one hand, I was extremely curious to try them myself. On the other, I was terrified about losing my mind during the trip.
I weighed it up for a long time, and decided to take my chances.
Nothing could have prepared me for what followed.
Early on in the experience, I found myself wondering about the meaning of life.
What followed was a kind of ‘self-induced existential crisis’, where I was confronted with the madness (and apparent meaninglessness) of existence itself.
I thought about the billions of years of evolution that had led to this point in time. I thought about the shocking mystery that life really is – that we all just wake up one day on this planet, and that nobody really knows what we’re doing here.
I started the trip thinking about meaning.
But the further I got into it, the more the experience seemed to be showing me; life is a shocking mystery – but there’s no ultimate meaning to it.
When it hit me, it felt like the foundations were ripped out from beneath me. My sense of stability vanished, and I felt shaken to the core.
In the days that followed, I experienced panic attacks, intense anxiety and a ‘brain fog’ that just wouldn’t go away.
For about 10 days, I found myself in my own personal version of hell.
Worse still, it was my fault that I was there.
Far from finding the direction I had hoped for, I felt traumatised, and wasn’t sure if things would ever get back to ‘normal’ again.
But over time, they did..
In this post, I’ll share three things that helped me get through the experience.
If you ever find yourself going through a challenging time, they might be useful for you too.
#1 – Choosing Meaning
Years before, I had read Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.
Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War Two. His experiences in the camps had taught him that meaning could be a powerful antidote to suffering.
He noticed that prisoners who had some kind of future to look forward to, were much more likely to survive than those who didn’t.
After his release, Frankl went on to become one of the world’s experts on meaning in life. He developed logotherapy – a therapeutic approach that helps individuals heal through meaning.
One of the quotes that jumped out at me from the book was the following:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”Victor Frankl
When I read it for the first time, I immediately sensed there was something profound behind these words, but I didn’t quite understand exactly what it was.
Frankl seemed to be saying that there’s no ultimate meaning to life itself, but rather it’s the responsibility of each of us to give our own life meaning. In other words, meaning is subjective, and it’s up to us to create it in our own lives.
When I was in the depths of the crisis, I remembered this idea and it provided some hope.
I thought about what meaning I could give to what I was going through, and if I was fortunate enough to come back from it, how I could build my life in a way that would make my day-to-day experience as meaningful as possible.
#2 – A problem shared…
Psychologist James Pennebaker studies the relationship between emotional trauma and physical illnesses in the body.
His research found that people who have been through trauma are much more likely to get (physically) sick than those who haven’t.
Interestingly, Pennebaker also discovered a link between self disclosure (talking with a friend or therapist) and recovery from trauma.
He found that those who were able to talk about their traumatic experience with someone they could trust, were much more likely to avoid later physical illnesses, than those who were not.
In some sense, emotional trauma can get ‘trapped’ in the body and show up as physical symptoms – if we don’t have an outlet for it.
When I was at my lowest moment, I called someone close to me and told them everything I was going through. Simply being able to talk about it with someone I trusted made a huge difference to how I felt.
After putting down the phone, I felt as if a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The suffering became bearable and I had a glimpse of hope that things could improve.
If I didn’t have this person, I don’t know how I would have coped.
That’s all well and good if you have someone you can confide in.
But what if you don’t? What can you do then?
#3- Therapeutic Writing
Pennebaker also had a theory that writing about traumatic experiences could have a similar effect.
In other words, that writing about trauma can help us heal from it.
He conducted a study comparing two groups of people. He got the first group to write about ‘the most upsetting or traumatic experience of your entire life’, and the second (control) group to write about a randomly chosen topic (e.g. a typical day in their life, their home, etc).
Both groups were asked to write for fifteen minutes on four consecutive days.
Pennebaker received permission to obtain their medical records at some point in the future, and waited for one year.
He then counted how many hospital visits each participant made the following year.
He found that those who had written about their traumatic experiences visited their doctors and hospitals significantly less in the following year.
In other words, if you had written about a past trauma, you were much less likely to get sick than someone who hadn’t.
What was going on here?
When we experience emotional trauma, it can live on inside us – affecting our thoughts, feelings, and even our physical health. Our brain still perceives what happened in the past as threatening – so it holds on to the experience, and keeps reminding us of it in the present.
It unconsciously thinks: ‘If I forget about this, the same thing (trauma) could happen again.’
So we can’t let it go.
When we write about our traumas however, it enables us to make sense of them. Our brain begins to feel that it understands the source of the threat, why it happened to us and what it needs to do to avoid the same thing happening again in the future.
Crucially, it no longer feels the need to keep reminding us of the danger in the present. We can let go of the experience and close this chapter of our lives.
For a long time after my experience, I found it difficult to think about it, or talk about it, without provoking a strong negative emotional reaction inside.
So, with nothing to lose, I decided to give Pennebaker’s writing exercise a go; asking myself questions like: Why did this happen? What good might come from it?
Over time, it felt like something ‘shifted’ in me, and I was able to move on.
Far from giving me the direction I had been looking for, my psychedelic experience turned my world upside down.
It did teach me some important lessons though.
Firstly, it showed me just how dark a place the world can be when our sense of meaning is taken from us.
Secondly, it taught me that we get to choose what meaning we give to our lives; both on a micro, and macro level.
Thirdly, I learned two important ways to cope with the traumas and emotional suffering that life will inevitably throw at us.
And finally, it taught me that our state of mind (our mental health) is the most important thing we have.
If it’s in any way diminished, the world becomes a very different place.
It’s funny how it can take nearly losing something, to help you realise just how valuable it really is.