Shrooms, from microdosing to tripping
Updated: Mar 10
Shrooms generally refer to Psilocybin mushrooms. They belong to a class of drugs known as hallucinogens. Hallucinogens change our thought processes, mood, and perceptions. There are three broad categories of hallucinogens (also referred to as psychedelics). Psilocybin is in the serotonin-related class along with LSD and DMT.
The effects of these hallucinogens vary wildly depending on which drug is used, how much is used, the setting of the use and the person’s expectation of the experience. Although many historians believe that magic mushrooms have been used as far back as 9000 B.C., their use in Western culture was relatively unknown until the 1950’s.
A mycologist (fancy for mushroom expert) traveling through Mexico in 1955 witnessed use of magic mushrooms and subsequently wrote about his findings in a Life magazine article. None other than Timothy Leary was intrigued by the article and began experimenting with them at Harvard. For many years, shroom use in the U.S. was linked to the hippie counterculture, but lately, that has been changing.
What happens when we trip?
It is difficult to define what constitutes a trip because experiences are so individualized. However, there are some common effects. At low doses users typically experience relaxation, physical heaviness or lightness and perceptual distortions. More physical sensations tend to occur with higher doses; light-headedness, numbness around the mouth, shivering or sweating, nausea, or anxiety.
The psychological effects are quite similar to LSD, only milder. This may include detachment and/or an altered sense of space and time. Higher doses may cause hallucinations, depersonalization, intense feelings of insight or a sense of being extremely focused.
In some cases, people experience what is called synesthesia (Greek, meaning perceive together). This is a confusion of the senses and people may see sounds or hear sights. Fascinating side note: there are some people who always experience synesthesia, with the most common form being colored hearing, meaning sounds are seen as colors.
All (as far as we know) of the serotonin-like hallucinogens are agonists, meaning they stimulate. Scientists believe that hallucinations are caused by a stimulation of a particular serotonin receptor (5-HT2a). Most of those receptors are in the cerebral cortex, which is also where we process most of our visual stimuli.
With the recent resurgence of interest in magic mushrooms, it is likely that we are just beginning to fully understand how, and why hallucinogens work the way they do.
In recent years, microdosing of Psilocybin mushrooms, LSD and DMT has been gaining in popularity. (Both LSD and DMT are worthy of their own space, so they will not be covered in this article).
A standard dose of magic mushrooms is approximately three grams. Although there is no definitive amount for microdosing, most people follow the 1/10 or 1/20 of the standard dose guideline.
It is believed that microdosing allows some benefit of the psychedelic, but without the accompanying impairment of a full dose. Proponents of microdosing claim improvements in well-being and the enhancement of cognitive or emotional processes.
Microdosers frequently self-report effects such as an increase in creativity, lessened anxiety, a decreased need for caffeine and a reduction in depression. Some studies have produced findings of improved convergent and divergent thinking.
Convergent thinking is the ability to focus on abstract concepts to identify a single solution, whereas divergent thinking is a process that explores multiple possible solutions to generate creative ideas. Both are considered necessary ingredients of creativity.
The dreaded bad trip
Hallucinogens have been used for hundreds of years by people on every inhabited continent and often as part of a ritual. Using psychedelics in a planned, intentional way in a safe environment can help offset negative experiences.
People who have bad trips often report heightened levels of anxiety, fear, or physical discomfort. Due to the disorienting effects, accidents and physical injuries can occur. Underlying psychosis can be triggered using hallucinogens and some people do report flashbacks, but more commonly with LSD.
Since hallucinogens are not legal, and therefore not regulated, it is difficult for users to know if they are getting what they are supposed to. There are home tests for purchase, but they are not fool proof.
Psychedelic harm reduction
Should you decide to use hallucinogens in full form or as a microdose, there are some harm reduction measures that you can take. There is no guarantee that you will get the experience you intended, but these measures can help with safety and potentially better outcomes.
· Plan your trip ahead of time.
· Know your dose and remember, you can add, but you cannot take away.
· Use with people you know and feel safe with. If possible, have someone present who is not tripping.
· Use one drug at a time.
· Do not pick your own mushrooms unless you are experienced (Texas alone has 10,000 types of mushrooms!).
· Nausea often accompanies the use of psychedelics, so do not eat, or eat very little prior to using.
· Anxiety can often be lessened by reassurance from a trusted person, so avoid using alone.
· Do not drive or attempt to operate any type of machinery!
Denning, P., & Little, J. (2017). Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide to Controlling Your Drug and Alcohol Use. The Guilford Press.
Kuhn, C., Swartzwelder, S., & Wilson, W. (2019). Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. W.W. Norton & Company.
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.