Psychedelics 101: How to Trip for the First TimeBy Shelby Hartman and Madison Margolin
On May 8, 2019, the US saw its first city, Denver, vote yes to decriminalising psilocybin mushrooms. It follows that more and more newbs will be trying psychedelics, as discussions around their therapeutic properties continue to enter the mainstream. If you’re one of those newbs, you should know that tripping with a positive mindset in a sensible setting, is a crucial part of taking any psychedelic trip. Here, Shelby Hartman and Madison Margolin, the founders of a new magazine devoted to psychedelics, DoubleBlind break down everything you need to know about taking your first psychedelic trip—whether MDMA, mushrooms, LSD, or Ayahuasca.
We’re currently experiencing a wellness paradigm shift. Meditation increased among US adults from four to 14 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Yoga also increased among Americans during that time, from 10 to 14 percent. Meanwhile, the global wellness industry grew 13 percent from 2015 to 2017. People are clearly looking for new ways to not only heal, but to thrive. And the cannabis and psychedelic movements are just one more indication of that.
Alongside the explosion of the cannabis and CBD industries, psychedelics—or plant medicines, as some call them—have become increasingly popular among people coping with mental health conditions and seeking to deepen their spiritual journeys.
Since the mid-90s, psychedelic drugs—which were banned from research for decades due to stigma—have once again become the subject of rigorous investigations at prominent universities, including the University of California, New York University, and Johns Hopkins University.
Psilocybin, the primary psychoactive component in psychedelic mushrooms, has shown promise for treating depression, eating disorders, nicotine addiction, and cocaine addiction, among other conditions. In a small, but rigorous clinical trial last year, ayahuasca, too, was found to rapidly improve treatment-resistant depression. And MDMA, often called ecstasy, has been placed by the Food and Drug Administration on the fast-track to being approved for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by 2021.
All this emerging evidence as well as the cultural buzz around psychedelics—fueled largely by Michael Pollan’s New York Times bestseller How to Change Your Mind—has contributed to a growing interest in psychedelics. Dozens of ayahuasca retreats now take place every weekend in major cities around the world, while microdosing (taking small amounts of acid or mushrooms) has become as socially acceptable as drinking coffee in the startup world.
Nevertheless, tripping can be an intimidating prospect, especially if you’ve read some of the harrowing accounts of bad trips on the internet. So how can you know if a psychedelic is right for you? And, if it is, how can you best prepare for that first experience?
Bia Labate, founder of the Chacruna Institute for Plant Medicines, says figuring out which psychedelic to take, if any, is an elusive process. Do your homework. Read as much as you can about these substances: Erowid and The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelics Studies (MAPS) are good resources. And make sure that you don’t have a mental health condition or you’re not taking medications that could put you at risk while under the influence of the psychedelic you’re considering. But ultimately, Labate says, it’s about having “a spiritual and personal calling” to a particular substance.
For Cat, who asked to keep her last name anonymous, that calling was to MDMA. She’d long struggled with depression and anxiety. “To be honest, when I first got into doing psychedelics, I was very, very timid,” she says. “I was in the camp of ‘you people must be crazy.’”
Prior to trying psychedelics, Cat, a 32-year-old living in Los Angeles, had tried what she calls “basically every other tool” for getting better: a Vipassana retreat, Tony Robbins seminars, and three years of therapy. MDMA, in one session, gave her mental and emotional breakthroughs nothing else did.
“Your brain just makes these connections that it wouldn’t have otherwise,” she says. “There’s this glass that shatters and when it shatters you have no choice but to move forward.”
She chose MDMA because, to her, it seemed like a “softer, fluffier” place to start than a classic psychedelic like mushrooms or ayahuasca, which have a reputation for being quite challenging. In contrast, some people prefer mushrooms or ayahuasca because they’re natural and thus steeped in cultural and spiritual traditions.
“It depends on the person, and each one's sensitivities,” says Labate. “Some people will be more drawn to synthetics, others to natural plants. Some identify with religious groups whereas others prefer medical models.”
Regardless, experts agree, in order to have the deepest, most beneficial trip possible, it’s important to prepare. Here’s how.
Mushrooms/PsilocybinWhile there’s no concrete numbers on psychedelic use in the United States, mushrooms are certainly one of the most popular psychedelics. Psilocybin—the primary psychoactive component in psychedelic mushrooms—was given “breakthrough therapy” status by the Food and Drug Administration last year for treatment-resistant depression.
Interestingly, in all the clinical trials looking at psilocybin, the more spiritual a person’s trip, the more they received therapeutic benefit from it.
So, for example, if a person enrolled in a psilocybin trial to quit smoking, the more they experienced qualities like “a oneness with all things,” the more likely they were to remain off cigarettes after their trip. This, for researchers, brings up questions about the connection between healing, mental health, and spirituality. Unlike more traditional antidepressants which need to be taken regularly to have an effect, it seems psychedelics only need to be taken a few times to change a person’s outlook, mental health, and relationship with others. This is, perhaps, in part, because the shift in perspectives from a trip persist long after the trip itself.
If you feel called to trip on mushrooms, most people tend to do them for the first time at home, says Michelle Janikian, journalist and author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion. This is because the most important thing, especially for your first trip, is to feel comfortable. A standard dose is often an eighth of an ounce, but, Janikian says, it’s best to start with two grams or less.
When people do trip at home, Janikian recommends that they tidy up first. It might sound weird, she says, but experienced trippers often say that clutter or grime can be disruptive while on a psychedelic.
The idea is to create a safe container for yourself, without distractions that might take you out of the moment.
In terms of who to trip with, it’s always good to choose a person (or at most three or four people) who know you intimately, like a significant other or best friend.
It’s also good to consider, if it’s your first trip and you’re nervous about it, to have a “sitter,” someone who, ideally has experience with psychedelics, and is not tripping so they can be fully present for you.
Take the time, before you begin, to create a playlist of music that you love and ensure that you have items you might need available (water, a journal, comfort items, etc). The whole experience lasts around four to six hours.
Mushrooms run a much lower risk of being laced than, say, MDMA. That being said, if you want to be confident of their source, you can grow them at home. Psilocybin mushroom spores are legal in all but four states and can be purchased pretty easily online—so can the equipment needed to grow them. Spore Works is a popular site for spores and Midwest Grow Kits is a good place for the equipment.
There’s also mushroom retreats for people who want to trip in a more structured setting. MycoMeditations in Jamaica and Buena Vida Retreats in Mexico are both trusted sites.
Afterwards, be sure to set time aside for what’s called “integration,” the process in which you make sense of your experience and incorporate the lessons from it into your life. You can do this alone through journaling, movement, yoga, or any other meditative practice that works for you. You can also seek out psychedelic integration circles through the website Meetup, visit MAPS’ Zendo Project at a major festival, or find a psychedelic integration therapist through MAPS’ database.
Acid versus shrooms: it’s an age-old question. These days, most of the psychedelic research in the United States is investigating psilocybin. In the early days of psychedelic research, though, acid and psilocybin were both being investigated—and showing promise—for many of the same conditions: depression, end-of-life-distress, and alcoholism, among others. In fact, between 1947 and 1966, more than 40,000 patients received LSD and more than 1000 scientific papers were published on it.
When psychedelic research picked up again in the early 2000s, researchers decided to administer psilocybin—instead of acid—for two main reasons: it doesn’t last as long and it comes with less cultural stigma. In comparison to psilocybin mushrooms, which last four to six hours, LSD can last anywhere from six to 15 hours. It’s not typically taken in a ceremonial setting—we’ve never heard of any retreat centers offering it—but it can be taken with an underground therapist or with friends.
Janikian says the general consensus seems to be that acid is less emotional than shrooms. Some people, she said, also prefer shrooms because they like the idea of taking something that’s natural. That being said, they are similar and many of the same tripping rules that apply to shrooms, apply to acid too.
Make sure when you take it you’re in a safe environment with people you trust. Prepare ahead of time by setting an intention. And always veer on the side of taking less than more.
Start with half a tab and then take the other half in a couple hours if it’s not strong enough. Know the person you’re buying from and, if you don’t, be sure to test your acid with a Dance Safe testing kit.
Like with mushrooms, figure you’re going to need a couple days, at least, to process your trip after it’s over and put a plan in place for doing that.
MDMA is, of course, a popular recreational drug. In the 2014 Global Drugs Survey, more than 20 percent of young adults who reported “clubbing” at least four times per year reported using MDMA within the last year. That being said, it’s not commonly taken among friends as a therapeutic or spiritual tool the way shrooms and acid are. Typically, when taken for mental health reasons, it’s administered by a therapist (or two) who are trained in guiding people through MDMA experiences. This is the model that has been successfully used by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelics Studies (MAPS), the research nonprofit behind all the pioneering work looking at MDMA for PTSD.
MDMA was a popular psychotherapy tool, administered to individuals and couples in therapy, before it was banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1985 amid concern about its role in rave culture. Now, it’s showing promise as a medicine for trauma among veterans, women who have been sexually assaulted, and others. There’s also a trial, slated to start up again this year, looking at MDMA for racial trauma among people of color.
Take care of yourself in the days preceding the trip. Hydrate. Live cleanly. Journal. Set intentions. And then, once you’ve taken the medicine, relax and trust the experience.
For Cat, her experience with MDMA lasted about eight hours, from the time she took the first dose to the time that she was back on her feet, getting picked up by a close friend. Her personal therapist was there with her—throughout the experience—getting her water, playing her music, and taking notes as she had revelations. The most important thing, she said, is to properly prepare and to properly integrate your experience once it’s over. Like with any psychedelic, take care of yourself in the days preceding the trip. Hydrate. Live cleanly. Journal. Set intentions. And then, once you’ve taken the medicine, relax and trust the experience.
Afterwards, Cat recommends making an active effort to incorporate the lessons learned from an MDMA trip—or any other trip, for that matter—so they don’t just slip away. Also, she says, expect that you’ll be low energy and emotional in the days following the experience. This differentiates MDMA from shrooms and acid which, instead, often cause what’s known as “the afterglow effect” in the days following a trip. To help with the MDMA comedown, some people recommend the supplement 5-HTP.
Regardless of where you take it, MDMA is still illegal in the United States and runs a high risk of being adulterated so it’s important that you know where it’s coming from. If you want to be extra safe, you can buy an MDMA testing kit from DanceSafe.
If you’ve read accounts of trips online, ayahuasca is perhaps one of the most intimidating plant medicines. People who have never taken it before are often deterred by what’s called “purging,” or vomiting. It’s true. You have to be prepared for that. That being said, ayahuasca has shown promise as a treatment for addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. People feel called to it, too, because it’s been drunk for millennia and is typically served in a communal, ceremonial setting.
Once you’ve decided to do ayahuasca, one of the most important decisions to be made is where. The Chacruna Institute for Plant Medicines, Labate’s organization, put together some basic guidelines to determine if a place is safe and following the proper protocol.
Drinking ayahuasca is not like going to the movies or going to a party. It’s something that can change your life forever so you have to think deeply about if you want do it.
The only organizations in the United States which are legally allowed to serve ayahuasca for religious purposes are the Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal, known as the UDV. They’re both ayahuasca churches with roots in Christianity. The Santo Daime church is relatively open, all that’s required to join is an interview and a screening process.
There are, of course, dozens of illegal ceremonies in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Denver, and Portland, but there are also, now, emerging scenes in the middle of the country and the South. Some of these ceremonies are held by Americans—with a wide-range of training—while others are held by shamans visiting from South American countries.
Since the 70s, there’s also been an ayahuasca tourism industry in Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia. It’s exploded in the last decade as ayahuasca has grown in popularity. Temple of the Way of the Light is a trusted retreat center in Peru. Cosmic Sister is an organization that offers grants to women who want to drink in the Amazon. The Heroic Hearts Project provides similar opportunities to veterans.
Some people prefer to drink where they live so they can easily get home after the experience. Others, however, feel called to drink in the Amazon, where the medicine originates. They’re both legitimate, says Labate. The most important thing is to look at the credentials of the ceremony facilitators.
Preserve your body, try to sleep well, don’t engage in fights, be in a nice atmosphere, be calm, be concentrated, focus on your intentions. Don’t eat a lot of trashy foods, canned foods, alcohol, pork or spices.
Do they have ties to a particular tradition or community? Where were they trained? Do they have protocols in place for how you should prepare for the ceremony? Where do they get their medicine and how do they make it? (They might not disclose this as, Labate says, it’s often considered secret, but it’s reasonable to ask.) A red flag is if they don’t have a screening process in place that does an intake of your health and what medications you’re on to ensure that it will be safe for you to drink ayahuasca.
After you’ve decided where you’re going to go, other considerations are how many nights you’re going to drink (typically first-timers drink at least two nights in a row), whether a friend is going to come with you (Labate recommends it), and, of course, your intention.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, Labate says: “Preserve your body, try to sleep well, don’t engage in fights, be in a nice atmosphere, be calm, be concentrated, focus on your intentions. Don’t eat a lot of trashy foods, canned foods, alcohol, pork or spices.”
Afterwards, make sure that you have a support system in place to help you process your experience. “Don’t just jump in. Drinking ayahuasca is not like going to the movies or going to a party,” says Labate. “It’s something that can change your life forever so you have to think deeply about if you want do it.”