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Shrooming Gets Easier With Age

Getting older has its advantages … like being able to keep your cool while you’re tripping balls

Damon Orion

Remember your first time driving? Making love? Meditating in a condemned building filled with vampire bats? If you’ve been doing those things with any regularity since then, you may have found they’re nowhere near as intimidating now as they once were. Familiarity might dampen the thrill of discovery, but it also brings far greater levels of control, comfort and relaxation. 

That can even apply to what is arguably the most intense plunge into the unknown this side of dying: the psychedelic experience. As this meme cutely expresses, frequent flyers in the entheogenic realm can develop a nonchalant attitude about situations and revelations that might utterly overwhelm newcomers. 

Perhaps that helps explain why recent research (and older studies like this and this) have found a significant negative correlation between advanced age and difficulty of psychedelic experiences. To put that informally, there’s reason to believe that the older you get, the less likely you are to freak out on mushrooms. 

The last of those studies determined that “age was negatively related to acute impairments in control and cognition” during psilocybin sessions. The researchers also reported that the effects of these compounds tended to be less intense for older participants, perhaps because repeated usage causes slightly reduced sensitivity. Additionally, they noted the possible influence of age-related factors on drug potencies, namely, increases in body weight, decreased 5-HT2AR binding potential and interactions with other medications.

Mellowing With Age

It’s also worth noting that people are generally exposed to fewer stressors in later life. As Penn State professor David Almeida, who headed this wide-spanning study, explained in a press statement, “As younger people, we may be juggling more, including jobs, families and homes, all of which create instances of daily stress.” 

Almeida went on to note that as we age, our social roles and motivations change, and we become skilled at reducing exposure to stressors. Additionally, he and his team determined that older people can become less emotionally reactive to potentially stressful situations with age.   

It follows that older individuals often harbor fewer concerns that might come up during a mushroom journey … and when, in the words of Primus, “the going gets rough and the stomach acids flow,” they may be relatively well equipped to stay calm. (Primus, for you tykes who may not know, is an alternative rock trio that started making waves in the underground freak community at the dawn of the ’90s. Tripping at a concert can be a roll of the dice, but for the present writer, that band’s live show blended winningly with an alkaloid that we’ll call “Liquid Salvador Dalí.”)  

These Damned Kids   

While we’re on the subject of adolescent experiments in chemistry, as someone who took his first psilocybin journey at age 16, I fell headlong into the most common age bracket for first-time psychedelic users (at least according to statistics from the ’90s). By then, I was fortunate enough to understand that when used with reverence and care, psychedelic compounds can be foundational to deeply enriching and transformative rites of passage. All credit there goes to a combination of Ram Dass’ books, Love and Rockets’ trip-tastic Express album and some meaningful talks with my mom (who, long before my birth, had followed the personal advice of one Dr. Timothy Leary to take LSD every eight days for a year).

A wild Primus show or two notwithstanding, those teachings from my elders were crucial in helping me avoid treating these medicines as party drugs and/or a means of escape from the tribulations of adolescent life—conditions that can increase the risk of temporary and sometimes even long-term meltdowns. 

As the summary of a recent study states, “using psychedelics with high frequency and to cope with negative affect” has been found to predict negative states of mind, while “using psychedelics in a group setting, with self-expansive intentions” has been found to predict positive ones. 

These researchers arrived at similar conclusions: “Feeling ready for the psychedelic experience and having clear intentions, especially those relating to connecting with nature, spirituality or recreation were [found to be] conducive to a peak/mystical-type experience and/or protective against a challenging experience.”

A writing from one of the world’s leading psychedelic researchers, Dr. Ben Sessa, makes a related assertion: During the western psychedelic boom of the 1960s, it became apparent that if the variables of set and setting were carefully observed and controlled, the psychedelic session “could be very productive,” but if they were disregarded, “the experience could be hellish.”

The point is that some of the perks that come with age, such as broadened perspective, increased maturity and greater capacity for self-reflection, boost the odds that one will go into a psychedelic experience with a healthy grasp of the hugeness and—dare we say?—sacredness of this undertaking. That, combined with the better understanding of dosage, preparation, set, setting and substance testing that age often brings, creates a set of conditions that can make one less likely to step in cowpies while gallivanting through the mushroom fields (figuratively speaking, mind you).  

Older and Wiser?   

…And furthermore, you little whippersnapper, the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a huge part in controlling stress and quelling fear responses, is not fully developed until about age 25. The brain of someone under that age may not be equipped to handle the changes in brain connectivity that psychedelics are known to instigate. Needless to say, that’s a non-issue for older adventurers. 

With all that said, let’s not kid ourselves: Some younger people can maneuver through the alien psilocybin landscapes like champs, and elders—even veteran psychonauts—are by no means impervious to panic that might arise during challenging trips. Psychedelics have the power to astound the young and old alike … and if they didn’t, what would be the point in taking them? 

Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist, and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work at damonorion.com

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