Feeling you've permanently damaged yourself on psychedelics
And what to do about it
This is the Tuesday Brunch round-up of interesting stories from around the net about psychedelic and ecstatic integration. The first bit is free, the round-up is for paid subscribers only.
When I had a bad trip, aged 18, I went to bed that night with one thought burning a hole in my brain: ‘you’ve done it now, you’ve permanently damaged yourself, you’re damaged goods’.
Over the next six years or so, that seemed to be true. I experienced various involuntary and unwanted mental states – panic attacks, nightmares, mood swings, social anxiety and derealization.
The worst of it was the belief that I had broken my brain and was fated to be broken for the rest of my life. I suffered from a deep sense of neuro-chemical fatalism and determinism.
The precise moment this changed was when I had a near-death experience, aged 24. I won’t go into the details (I describe it at length here), but during the brief, ecstatic experience I experienced the strong intuition ‘you are OK, you are not broken. What is causing your suffering is your beliefs’.
This turned out to be true. It was my belief ‘you have permanently broken your brain’ which caused a lot of my depression, fatalism, helplessness and social phobia. When I let go of that belief, I opened up to the possibility of healing and recovery. It took a long time to fully recovery, nonetheless - over a decade, I’d say. Don’t worry, that’s very unusual. Most recover from an intensely challenging trip in a few days or weeks.
Now, many years later, I have a happy and fulfilled life, relatively speaking, and I lead the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project to try and help others stuck in adverse and unwanted mental states after psychedelic experiences.
And it turns out my situation was far from unique. In the recent Canadian Psychedelic Survey of over 2000 people, 52% reported they had experienced at least one intensely challenging trip. And of those, 35% reported being affected by the fear ‘Worried about never being the same after the trip’.
In our own survey of extended difficulties after psychedelic experiences, 6% of people reported that they were affected by ‘fear of having permanently damaged the self’ for an extended period after a trip, and another 6% reported ‘fear of going mad’. Here are some of the responses we themed under ‘fear of having permanently damaged the self’:
Occasional overwhelming anxiety that ebbed and flowed, feelings of being out of control of my thoughts, feeling that my brain was 'broken'. Depression.
I took MDMA and drank alcohol at my friends wedding and the psychedelic experience was not bad or challenging. The only symptom I perceived the next day is that my toes became numb and this persisted for several days. However, two weeks later I experienced the strongest anxiety attack I have ever had which lasted two days and I am still having trouble with my mental health and understanding what has happened. I have to say I am not completely sure that the MDMA triggered this persistent anxiety and feeling of weight and numbness in the head, but I had never felt it before like this. I was afraid that I had damaged myself for good and that I was going crazy or that I would have a stroke or die. The feeling was so unbearable I even thought I could not possible continue on living if it was to last more than a week. Today I feel much better but have some good and some bad days.
A few months before my trip, an aunt had experienced a mental break. In the aftermath of my trip I was overcome with a fear that I had just done irreversible damage to my brain and that I would be stuck in "a bad place" like her.
I was worried that I had caused permanent damage to my consciousness. Because I think such intense emotional experiences leave an imprint on us, on our hearts, and it takes a while to resolve. These feelings were with me for at least half a year but maybe longer.
What can one do if one finds oneself in this situation, stuck in this negative belief with all the feelings of despair and helplessness it can arouse? What can one do for a loved one or a client if they are stuck in this belief?
In some ways, the belief ‘I am permanently damaged’ is a classic symptom – and cause – of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As the Oxford Development Centre writes:
Too often, when people have lived through a traumatic experience, their sense of the past and vision of the future stops – all that they can see in front of them are continuing pictures of the trauma that has befallen them. They begin to think and speak in extremes, such as ‘I’ll always feel like this!’, ‘I’ll never get over this!’ or ‘I’m permanently damaged!’
Most people have to cope with some negative or challenging experiences in their life. However, if these are non-traumatic and there are enough resources, such as a good family network, friends or other support systems, then usually people can deal with adverse experiences reasonably well and adjust to them. However, in cases of trauma and PTSD, for the person who experienced the event it can often be as if their energy gets stuck in that one place and continues to stay there from then on. When this is the case, from the time of the trauma onwards all of the person’s subsequent experiences, whether positive or negative, are overshadowed by the trauma. In this way unresolved traumatic events have the power to cast a huge inﬂuence on a person’s present and future life. People often describe this experience with words like: ‘I feel stuck at the time of the trauma’, ‘It is as if most of my energy stayed in that place’.
In this sense, PTSD reminds me of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations - she is stuck in the moment where she was jilted at the altar, she can’t get over it, all the clocks have stopped at that moment and the wedding banquet rots on her dining table.
Recovering from post-psychedelic trauma is similar to recovering from any trauma – you can learn that you can control your perspective on the traumatic event, manage certain symptoms like panic attacks, and perhaps, gradually to accept the traumatic event as something bad that happened to you, rather than the event which permanently ruined your life. You can learn to let go of the fixation ‘I have permanently damaged myself’ and get on with your life. Here are two quotes from our survey from people who found therapy helpful for post-psychedelic trauma:
I have also found talking therapy very helpful, as I'm sure I have PTSD from the experience. She has helped me find coping strategies and address the trauma.
[Therapy] was THE most important thing. In times when I believed I had completely lost it and messed with my mind, she reassured me that it was temporary and we worked together with different, psychological and spiritual techniques through the experience. I couldn't have done it alone
What complicates the matter somewhat is that it can’t be as simple as telling yourself or your loved one or client: ‘this is just a belief, you’re fine really’. Because there can be harmful effects of psychedelics that last a long time. Some people experience visual distortions for decades, for example, or for life. Others experience recurring moments of derealization for years or decades or life. At the most extreme, some people can have recurring moments of psychosis, with the initial psychotic episode triggered by a trip, or they can physically harm themselves or others.
You’d be unlucky if your adverse experiences lasted longer than a few months – in one forthcoming survey from Johns Hopkins, 11% of people who took psychedelics reported feeling worse after 2-4 weeks. But that dropped to 7% after 2-4 months. I imagine it would drop further beyond that. So, for most people, perhaps 95%, they don’t suffer any lasting adverse effects after psychedelics. But maybe 5% do, like I did.
For some of that 5%, any lasting ‘unusual phenomena’ – visual distortions, say, or moments of derealization or anxiety - are probably made worse by the catastrophizing attitude: ‘I have permanently damaged myself’. Even if you experience prolonged, weird phenomena like visual distortions or derealization, at some point you have a choice – either accept it and try to go on with your life, or fixate over it and refuse to accept the direction your life has taken. You can choose to float, or you can sink like a stone.
In some ways, I didn’t fully recover or return to my previous personality after that difficult trip when I was 18. Some things I lost did not come back. I never fully recovered the social confidence or social skills I had when I was a teenager, but I discovered new sources of meaning, virtue and self-belief. My life got a whole lot better when I let go of the belief ‘I have permanently messed myself up’ and instead switched to an attitude of acceptance, healing and growth.
After the paywall, a fascinating discussion on what comes after the war on drugs, plus ‘is the ayahuasca honeymoon over?’ All paid subscriptions support our research, and give you access to the community chat, online events, and our amazing archive of stories.