Thoughts on Microdosing

It might just be because of my social circles or pages I tend to follow, but an ever increasing amount of information about microdosing seems to be finding it’s way into my consciousness, and the overwhelming majority of it is hugely positive.

My understanding of microdosing is the practice of taking a very small amount of a normally psychoactive substance such as LSD or psilocybin (magic mushroom), on a regular basis, with the intention of improving mood, reducing anxiety, and increasing productivity. The theory is that the amount consumed is so tiny that it has no noticeable psychoactive effects such as causing a ‘trip’, but instead works on a deep subconscious level to heal and overcome emotional and mental issues.

I see it commonly compared to as the drug from the movie ‘Limitless‘, a life enhancer with seemingly no downsides. It’s described as a miracle cure by many lifelong anxiety and depression sufferers, and I’m having a tough time finding any negative reports besides the inevitable speculation of skeptics about the lack of scientific research behind it.

The problem is that due to the illegality of the substances, it’s near impossible for scientists to conduct comprehensive studies, resulting in a catch 22 situation; if they were allowed to research and prove the benefits people speak of, it would be very difficult not to legalize and let the planet reap the healing properties of the practice.

Unfortunately, because of these legal limitations, most evidence for the benefits of microdosing is anecdotal or underground. Despite this, The Harm Reduction Journal has conducted a study of 278 participants, of which 26.6% reported improved mood, amongst other benefits such as memory, focus, and self-efficacy. The side-effects reported were minimal and short term, such as headaches and lack of sleep.

It would be extremely interesting to see what sort of information could be obtained from widespread research on people suffering from long term depression or anxiety conditions. It’s hard not to speculate that a lot of the push back on this may have something to do with the impact this would have on pharmaceutical companies profit margins in the likely scenario of anti-depressant sales plummeting.

For now I suppose it’s something that will remain somewhat underground. With the relative freedom of information the internet provides (although this seems to becoming more and more censored), information does seem to be spreading and reports of attentive parents and successful entrepreneurs microdosing to miraculously improve seemingly all areas of their lives and cure them of long-term mental conditions is extremely encouraging.

Whilst I’m currently on a journey of recovering from prescription medications, and working on overcoming anxiety disorders and depression in a way that’s non-reliant on any substances, the idea is extremely tempting to me, and it’s comforting to know that, if things don’t go as planned, there are bright alternative options available.

Why I Take Ice Cold Showers Every Day

The topic of cold showers is probably done to death. It’s become a bit of a trending topic in the industry of #lifehacks along with countless viral trends such as keto, intermittent fasting, nofap, dopamine fasting, and god knows what other catchy phrases YouTubers are able to get their hands on and use as shameless clickbait.

As with many of it’s fellow #lifehacks, you may be led to believe that cold showering will give you superhuman powers such as the ability to reach the front page of YouTube or cure cancer. In all seriousness, the brilliant and highly marketable Wim Hof has done much amazing work around the topic of cold therapy and you may be familiar with some of his feats.

Some of the claimed benefits of regular cold showers, many which are backed by science, include the strengthening of the immune system, boosted mood, increased alertness, and reduction of inflammation in the body. Whilst of course desirable, these are not the main reasons I choose to plunge myself under icy water every single morning.

My reason for taking cold showers draws similarities with some of the Buddhist and Stoic philosophies. It is something I do more as a tool for mental training rather than to afflict a series of physical reactions.

One of the principles of Stoicism is that of accepting the moment as it presents itself, and not allowing yourself to react or try to change, resists, or prolong what is, be it pleasure or pain.

Buddhist teachings, similarly, emphasize not resisting the moment, and training yourself to be a passive observer of the workings of the body and mind. There is a principle of suffering which states that suffering = resistance x pain . In other words, if our resistance to pain, physical, emotional, or mental, is 0, than suffering will be 0.

This principle can be put into practice quite easily by anyone who wants to test it, by the simple act of experimenting with cold showering. When I first started, I would tense up, resist, fear the icy cold blast all over my body, and I would suffer. Once I started practicing the law of suffering, and offering no resistance to the cold, not only did the suffering end, but it became a pleasant experience.

I believe this philosophy to be really helpful in many aspects of life. For me, it’s transforming the way I relate to anxiety, panic and depression. It helps work the muscle of acceptance, and break the pattern of resistance.

Misunderstandings About Agoraphobia

There are a lot of shitty things about being agoraphobic. It’s essentially imprisoning yourself, a type of solitary confinement imposed by your own mind. It’s also really boring repeatedly explaining and trying to get people to understand what it actually is.

I’ve seen therapists who were supposed to help me overcome this condition, who, prior to me explaining, didn’t understand what agoraphobia was. Many friends and family members I’ve explained it to will nod and ‘hmmm’ in agreement and understanding, only to invite me an hour later to some event that means travelling and being in a completely impossible situation for an agoraphobic.

It’s frustrating but I get that it’s probably near impossible to fully understand panic disorder and agoraphobia unless you’ve experienced it. There’s many things in life that are this way; falling in love, for example, or experiencing psychedelics. I don’t think they’re things that can be grasped or fully understood without first hand experience.

The thing with phobias, as like many human behaviours, is they are completely irrational. Fear of spiders is an example many can relate to, an especially irrational fear for those in countries where the spiders are completely harmless. It’s completely bonkers to experience the degree of fear that many will when they see a harmless little spider crawl out from a dark corner of the room. People have been known to move home because of spider infestations.

Now imagine the trigger of your phobia is the outside world, or certain everyday life occurrences, such as going to the supermarket. Imagine knowing there’s nothing to fear, but still your body and mind betray you and act as though you are in life threatening danger.

To get an idea of the power of a phobia, Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist, explains a story of a man with a phobia of needles. This mans phobia was so strong, that he would frequently undergo dental procedures awake with no anesthetic.

One way I think is powerful in demonstrating the power of agoraphobia and put it into perspective is by supposing I was offered an insane amount of money to travel to a foreign country by plane. Let’s say a billion dollars. I couldn’t do it. At this stage of my recovery I can truthfully say that the terror of experiencing the panic is more powerful than the joy of having a billion dollars.

When the panic hits, you feel as you are being dangled off the edge of a building, about to drop, and there is nothing you can do about it. You feel a kick in your stomach as if you’ve just had the worst news of your life and it’s too late to do anything about it. The world becomes a hostile threat, and everything around you changes into something terrifying. Like a bad dream, all you want to do is run, but your legs have turned to jelly. You want to shout but you can’t. This is an everyday experience when you’re suffering from agoraphobia.

The fear is not of the outside world, of the train, or of the supermarket. The fear is of the way your body and mind will respond to this. Of course I’m not scared of going out and seeing friends. I’m instinctively scared of the terror the panic attack will bring. The brain has, somewhere along the lines, connected these things with imminent danger. The fear is of our fear response itself.

I don’t want this to be all negative. I truly believe I’m on a very positive path to recovery, and that once I’ve overcome this I’ll be stronger than I was before. Overcoming the fear of fear may be the most powerful thing a person can experience, and ultimately life-transforming. Simple in theory but often complex in practice.

Maintaining Mental Health in Isolation

I can imagine a lot of people who aren’t used to self-isolating and being stuck at home are really struggling with the Covid-19 lockdowns. I can also imagine people who were already quite isolated before finding the increased restrictions even more alienating, me being one of them.

Humans are social creatures. The abilities to love and care for each other, pass on important information, and share food and shelter in times of need is a part of our evolution and part of why we’ve thrived as a species. It’s hardwired into our survival instinct to seek out these relationships, and it’s a natural reaction for us to begin to feel down when we aren’t getting our needs met.

There’s a reason why solitary confinement in prison is considered one of the cruelest types of punishment. It goes against one of our most basic and primal biological needs and can cause serious long-term mental and emotional damage.

Of course, self-isolating in your home, with access to high speed wifi, an iPhone, Netflix, and a fridge full of food, is not exactly the same as being in prison. But restricting contact and normal interactions does effect us in a similar way if we aren’t careful. As someone who’s been quite severely agoraphobic for the past 7 or 8 months, I have experienced it personally.

I do feel that, as I recover, I have reached a routine which allows me to keep my head above the water and not drown in the isolation and lack of social contact. Whilst it isn’t the ideal situation, there are some key things which help.

One that is mentioned everywhere is meditation and mindfulness. People really seem to bang on about it, often without actually understanding it themselves. When you’re going through a mental health or spiritual crisis, having someone who has no idea what you’re going through, telling you ‘just meditate’, as if it’s an instant cure for all your problems, is ignorant and in some cases dangerous.

For a long time, on and off, I tried meditation on the advice of countless doctors, articles, therapists, you name it. No one explained meditation in any detail, and it led me to believe I was completely hopeless. If meditation was my last and only resort, I’d tried and failed. It was only when I found a book called ‘The Mind Illuminated’ that I started to understand it was a skill and a process, something that needed to be taught and learned.

Illustration inspired by ‘The Mind Illuminated’

More detail of the book can be found in my other blog post, but basically it teaches the reader how to meditate from a complete novice level, all the way through to reaching a stage akin to enlightenment or awakening. Without this book, I would of gained almost nothing from meditation. With it, I’m transforming my mind, shedding the many negative thought and behavior patterns I’ve carried most of my life, and most importantly, surviving and maintaining my mental health.

Keeping a routine is also key. Without at least a rough plan for the day, I found myself not wanting to move from bed, overthinking, and having pretty bad insomnia. Just having an intention and a basic set of things you do to get your day going is hugely important. It’s a cliché, but as well as being social creatures, we are also creatures of habit. By making these habits positive, we gain momentum in the right direction which keeps us out of a slump.

As an example, I’ll try to keep a pretty regular time of waking and going to bed. I strongly recommend making your waking hours sometime not too far away from sunrise and your sleeping hours when it’s dark. On waking, I’ll always exercise, meditate, cold shower, and have something to eat; these are all a given and I do them automatically now. After this, I’ll have times set aside for things like writing, working, hobbies, and exercising (again). We only have a certain amount of willpower and by setting a routine it means we don’t use this up on accomplishing simple things, and can save it for the important, more difficult stuff.

Finally, making a conscious effort to check in with people, is something I can easily forget to do if not careful. With social media we often think we’re connected and in contact, but it is often a very cold and impersonal way of communicating. By taking the time to call, Facetime, Skype, or message one-on-one with loved ones, we are able to hold space for each other and really communicate. I often feel like something is missing which I can’t quite put my finger on until I have a good chat with my friend or sister.

There’s a lot more you can do to maintain good mental health, or dig yourself out of a hole. These are just the things that I feel are not always made clear and often taken for granted. It’s taken me a while to figure out what I need to keep myself out of a dark place, but now I know, I feel much stronger, more positive, and able to handle the strain of the quarantine.

Remembering That Progress Is Not Linear

Photograph courtesy of Stewart Scott-Curran, CNN

Note to self: there will always be hiccups and speed bumps along the way. Sometimes the only way to figure out the right way is by first going the wrong way. It’s just how it goes.

Far too often I find myself stressing over where I’m at, why I haven’t reached certain milestones, dwelling on the illusion that I’m in reverse. I have to remind myself to zoom out and remember how I felt 3 months, 6 months, a year ago, to get a truthful view of things.

I still suffer with agoraphobia, and yes it’s extremely frustrating not to be able to do some of the most simple, taken-for-granted tasks like seeing friends, going to the shops, or basically anything that involves travelling more than a few miles from home.

But just 9 months ago I was heavily addicted to benzodiazepines and my life was miserable. I was convinced I couldn’t live without a constant supply of medication, and felt like I was perpetually walking a tightrope over shark infested waters. Just 6 months ago I was in the throws of benzo withdrawal and in a constant state of physical and mental anxiety, unable to think and constantly slipping up and relapsing.

It’s now been 3 months completely clean. I’ve completely given up drugs and drinking (for now at least), I meditate for far longer periods than I ever could, every day, I eat well and exercise, and slowly but surely my panic attacks are shrinking and the tunnel of agoraphobia now has a (very tiny) light at the end.

The light at the end of the dark tunnel

Journaling is a great way of reminding myself of the progress I’m making. I don’t do it often enough but just reading a few notes from 6 months ago was almost like reading the thoughts of a different person. Even flicking through old notes on my iPhone was like being shaken out of a trance of self doubt and gave me a fresh optimistic perspective of my future.

I may have been over ambitious about my goals and where I expected to be at this point in time. I didn’t account for the inevitable sprinkling of roadblocks and wrong turns that populate all journeys. But I’m making solid, constant progress over time, growing in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and feeling confident things will turn out just right.

Pretty cheesy analogy incoming: being in the moment is great, and keeping an eye on the destination is important. But also the odd glance in the rear view every now and then to remind yourself where you’ve come from might be just what you need.

Overcoming Panic Disorder Without Medication

The ‘go-to’ first line of defense against anxiety disorders and similar mental health issues in Western healthcare seems to almost always be medication. Yes, it can be the lesser of two evils and the way out of a dark patch for many (including myself), but most would agree that spending the rest of their lives reliant on pills for happiness or sanity isn’t the best case scenario.

My personal problem with medications is pretty simple…they just don’t really work for me. Or at least if they do, they don’t last very long, or the trade off just isn’t worth it. For every medication I’ve been prescribed (and there’s a few!) there was either no effect at all, horrific side effects, or a gradual build up of tolerance, leaving the medication useless and the psychological issues still as strong as ever (or in the case of benzo withdrawals, far stronger.)

Doctors and psychiatrists would nonchalantly toss prescriptions at me; citalopram, sertraline, olanzapine, resperidone, pregablin, propanolol, zopiclone and various benzodiazepines. There didn’t seem to be much of a thought process to this, or much follow up care, just a sort of roulette of SSRI’s and tranquilizers and then hurry me out of the door.

All that seemed to happen was the problem was temporarily delayed, or replaced with a new problem. It became clear to me after a while that the issues were within myself, and no amount of covering them up or hiding was going to resolve them.

Whilst this might seem scary or bleak, it’s really a beautiful lesson and quite empowering. I’m quite glad that I’ve never found anything that’s numbed my mind enough to stop me from feeling panic and anxiety, as I would have always been a prisoner to the drug, to the fear.

I think of it like removing a weed from a garden. Akin to taking a medication, I could chop the weed every few months, always knowing that it’s going to sprout up again at sometime, someplace. It never leaves the garden, just drops beneath the surface temporarily whilst it plans it’s next appearance. Alternatively, I can dig beneath the surface, find the root of the weed, and dispose of it once and for all.

Removing the unwanted weeds from the root

It can definitely be overwhelming, but tackling the root of anxiety is really the only way to be free from it destroying your life. By searching the soul and addressing the true cause of it, by facing and accepting the fear, it deals with it once and for all and stops it sprouting up again and again. The great thing as well is, when a new one may decide to sprout up further down the line, you know exactly how to deal with it before it becomes out of control.

Intentions and Acceptance

I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time researching material on overcoming panic disorder. Like many people prone to anxiety, I have a tendency to attempt to try to over-think my way out of problems. There’s endless amounts of YouTube videos, books, websites, and forum posts explaining different techniques for what to do when the dread starts to take hold, and the truth is none of it really made much of a difference for me.

The one overwhelming theme when you get to the core of almost all the teachings is that of acceptance. They may describe it as allowing, surrendering, letting go, or many other words for the same concept. Claire Weekes, author of Hope and Help for Your Nerves, urges you to ‘float through your anxiety.’ Eckhart Tolle, spiritual guru and author of ‘The Power of Nowspeaks of hearing the words ‘resist nothing‘ on his awakening experience. The list goes on, and the advice makes perfect sense. After all, panic disorder is a negative feedback loop, with negative emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations feeding and escalating off one another.

Then why do I find it so damn hard to put this into practice in the moment it’s needed? Panic is an involuntary response of the mind and nervous system to a mistaken danger, and my immediate involuntary response is that of fear, and an overwhelming urge to fight, resist, escape! If it was this easy to control voluntary responses, why not just decide not to have the panic response in the first place?!

Learning to accept and float on anxiety

This is where, after years of trying, some of my recent meditation learnings have come in helpful. Upon embarking on a somewhat serious meditation practice, one of the first things I’ve learned is about setting intentions. When we start, our minds don’t want to focus or follow the breath. They resist, make noise, and look for more interesting or exciting stimuli. But we set an intention to try to focus on the breath, to continuously re-engage our focus, and gradually the mind starts to obey.

It might seem obvious to some, but for me I just couldn’t grasp how to ‘let go’, or ’embrace the fear’ when I was in the grips of a full blown panic attack. Of course, I’m still struggling with this, but something clicked with me when I realised that by just setting a clear and conscious intention, you can gradually start to retrain some of your involuntary reactions, and all is not hopeless.

A good way I’ve found to practice this is by creating less intense situations in which to practice the art of acceptance. This could be through purposely creating minor panic inducing situations for yourself and trying to explore the fear. It could be by using a technique in which you deliberately emulate some of the physical symptoms of panic, such as hyper ventilation, and just allow yourself to feel the uncomfortable feelings with no resistance. This is a technique known clinically as interoceptive exposure therapy.

For me, I’ve found a variety of techniques to be helpful. One, for example, is using cold showers as a way of completely accepting the discomfort of the moment, and training myself not to react negatively to the trigger. Training my brain through meditation is also extremely helpful in teaching me to accept whatever comes up and be completely accepting of it. I also try to create a variety of panic triggers for myself which are uncomfortable but manageable, and will try to employ the techniques in those situations.

The concept is that, by repeatedly setting these intentions and practicing in lower pressure scenarios, when you do come to face the bigger fears and stronger panic triggers, you will be know exactly how acceptance should feel and will be very well equipped to handle the situation. Practice, trust and repetition is the key!

The Mental Break

When anxiety first made it’s big appearance 4 years ago, it was probably a long time coming. It was in the early hours of Sunday morning, and I’d been up all night partying and consuming various, ahem, substances.

It was at a friends house and we were all high, care-free, and consuming what can only be described a a cocktail of party drugs; ecstasy, ketamine, NOS, weed, cocaine, and lord knows what else. Under some peer pressure, I sniffed a big line of ‘CK’, ketamine mixed with cocaine. The idea is that while the ketamine tranquilizes you and sends you to a bizzare, spaced out universe, the cocaine kicks in to keep you alert and energized.

Well that was the last thing I remember and what turned out to be a turning point in my life. What ensued can only really be described as hell. I resisted the trip, and was dragged through pure horror for what felt like an eternity. I went through a complete psychotic breakdown and knew things would never be the same again.

After some amount of time (I have no idea how long, perhaps an hour or two), I came to consciousness and, although I was still hallucinating, I was coming back to reality. Over the following hours, days and weeks the trip began to fade away, leaving me with a terrifying sense of anxiety, confusion and impending doom. I was in a crisis and this is where my struggle really took over my life.