The Risks of Psychedelics & Other Mind-Altering Experiences

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Stealing Fire" by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the risks of psychedelics and other mind-altering experiences? How can you safely access altered states?

Psychedelics and other mind-altering experiences have become increasingly popular, and while they can have numerous benefits, it’s important to understand the potential risks involved. In Stealing Fire, Stephen Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore the four main risks of altering your state of mind.

Read on to learn about the risks of psychedelics and altering your state of mind, according to Kotler and Wheal.

Psychedelics & Altered States in Practice: The Risks

In their book Stealing Fire, Stephen Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore both the benefits and risks of psychedelics as they explore the world of higher states of consciousness. In the book, they explain how you can start exploring altered states in your own life, ending with their methods to evaluate and schedule different altered experiences throughout your life.

In this article, we’ll explain some of the risks of using psychedelics and altering your state of consciousness. Then, we’ll explore how the authors suggest you plan and carry out mind-altering experiences so you can enjoy them safely.

The Risks of Altering Your State of Consciousness

According to the authors, responsible explorers of altered states and psychedelics need to understand the risks, rewards, and ground rules of exploration before diving in. Let’s explore the four main risks: extreme ego inflation, conflating altered insights with practical success, getting addicted to the highs, and completely losing yourself in the experience.

Risk #1: Extreme ego inflation—Altered experiences, the authors say, can dissolve your sense of self and facilitate powerful insights that dangerously inflate the ego—for instance, sometimes people come back thinking they’re the second coming of Christ. To avoid losing yourself in what can seem like divine revelation, remember that your experience isn’t the end-all-be-all and take it with a grain of salt. 

(Shortform note: One study found that state-changing substances can cause either ego inflation or ego dissolution. Specifically, the researchers determined that psychedelic drugs correlate strongly with experiences of ego loss, whereas cocaine and alcohol are far more likely to cause ego inflation. As such, you may be at a lower risk of ego inflation when responsibly using psychedelics.)

Risk #2: Time frustration—Altered states distort your sense of time, so it’s easy to forget that, in normal life, it takes time to deliver on the brilliant insights you find. To avoid getting frustrated by this, the authors recommend remembering that you’ll need to work to turn your ideas into realities. 

(Shortform note: In addition to the authors’ suggestion above, you can try framing time frustration as an opportunity for growth and self-discovery. As Ryan Holiday suggests in The Obstacle is the Way, roadblocks on the path to your goals aren’t inherently good or bad. What matters most is how you choose to see them. So instead of getting frustrated, use the friction of daily effort to grow more resilient, persistent, and adaptable. In doing so, you’ll strengthen your commitment to your goals, learn what you’re truly made of, and develop virtues that will serve you in multiple areas of your life.)

Risk #3: Addiction—Altered states can feel incredible—specifically, the authors caution that sensations of great ease and joy can become addictive. The authors emphasize the risks of addiction, claiming that some people die chasing these states through extreme sports or lose their minds on psychedelics. The authors recommend remembering that there are no highs without lows, and they say to embrace the grit and grind of everyday life. 

(Shortform note: Though altered states and some of the paths to reach them pose addictive risks, note that the classical psychedelics (psilocybin and LSD) aren’t chemically addictive. In other words, you won’t build a substantial tolerance to a substance such as psilocybin, and you won’t experience withdrawal symptoms or cravings after use.)

Risk #4: Over-immersion—According to the authors, the richness and depth of altered experiences lure some people into going too deep, too fast. Some extreme sports athletes die by pushing too far, too fast—while the risk for some psychedelic explorers is that they can lose their minds doing the same. To avoid this fate, remember that the experience means nothing if you come back broken or not at all. So take it slow, and don’t discount the value of sobriety. 

(Shortform note: One popular way to ease into psychedelic use is micro-dosing, which lowers your risk of over-immersion. Micro-dosing is a practice wherein you take a fraction of a normal dose in order to acclimate to and see whether the experience is right for you. Over time you can introduce larger doses, eventually working toward full-size “trips” if you deem it to be right for you.)

Evaluate and Schedule Your Experiences

Now that we understand the risks associated with psychedelics and mind-altering experiences, let’s explore how the authors suggest you schedule and carry out your experiences.

The authors say that you can access altered states with a variety of methods. Some people prefer extreme sports; others use psychedelics; still others find flow in the music, dance, and community of festivals. Given this, the authors recommend that you consider every method that appeals to you and develop a schedule that spreads them throughout your year. 

Start with a list of the methods you want to try—such as starting a yoga practice, taking LSD, or experimenting with biofeedback tech—and then weigh the following three factors to evaluate each method:

  • Reward: How persistent and lasting are the benefits of the method?
  • Risk: How potentially dangerous is the method?
Additional Factors to Consider on Your Path to Altered Experiences

Above, the authors emphasize that each of us will find different routes to altered states and that in doing so, we have to patiently explore and assess various methods. Each of us will have a different balance of personal preferences, risk tolerance, sense of urgency, and so on. However, these aren’t the only factors you can consider, and a few others may be crucial to touch on:

Legality: Is the route legal in your country or state? What are the legal repercussions if you violate the law?

Expenses: Do you have the financial means to explore the route? For instance, extreme skiing can produce flow but is by no means a budget-friendly option.

Sustainability: Is the route something you can rely on regularly? If you do reach an altered state, will you be able to get back there sustainably?

Underlying conditions: Do you have any underlying conditions, such as physical or mental health challenges, that might be worsened by exploring a route?   

Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to determine what methods work best for us. In addition to these variables, take the time to consider any further specific-to-you factors that may be relevant to any given method. By more fully considering your personal route to altered experiences, you can reduce overall risks and be sure you find a way that is right and fulfilling for you.

Once you have a sense of the risk/reward/time balance of each method you’re interested in, sketch out a schedule. The authors suggest practicing slower, safer practices (meditation, yoga, contemplation) on a daily basis. On the other hand, space out your sessions with faster methods that carry more risk (psychedelics, rock climbing, extreme skiing)—try once a month, or a few times a year. In general, stay safe by using the riskier methods less often than you want to

Last, the authors recommend that you take one month out of each year to step away from altered states. During this time, reflect on what you’ve experienced and evaluate whether to adjust your practices. If you feel off-kilter from your intense methods, slow it down. If you need more grounding from slow, disciplined practices, work more on those. 

The Dangers of “Fast and Hard” Routes to Altered Experiences

Two big names of the Western counterculture of the late 20th century—Alan Watts and Terence McKenna—offer a fitting example of the authors’ insistence to use caution when trying the “fast and hard” methods to reach altered states. 

Watts, an English philosopher and teacher who lectured in the Bay area and at the Esalen Institute during the 1970s, said of psychedelics, “When you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones…” Watts likely said this to emphasize that psychedelics ought not to be treated as the best or only way to deepen and enrich your experience.

McKenna, in turn, demonstrated that long-term use of psychedelic substances won’t solve all your problems on its own. McKenna was perhaps the most popular lecturer and raconteur of the psychedelic counterculture in the 1980s. He was known to regularly use various psychedelics (mainly psilocybin) and to recommend a 5-gram “heroic dose” of psilocybin mushrooms. 

Toward the end of his life, however, McKenna reportedly endured a terrifying psychedelic trip that put him off of magic mushrooms for the last decade of his life. Asked once to comment on the above quotes by Watts, McKenna allegedly said, “Well, I’m still getting good messages!”
The Risks of Psychedelics & Other Mind-Altering Experiences

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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