Avoiding Freaking Out: A Primer

Every now and then, someone asks me for serious life advice.

Sometimes this doesn't work out too well, like when I suggested to a woman who wanted to know how to stop her neighbours from beaming mind control rays through her walls that she might perhaps not be perceiving the world in an entirely accurate way.

(She immediately realised that I, like most other people in the world, was in cahoots with her neighbours.)

Sometimes, though, my advice works out quite well.

The following correspondent found me, a couple of years ago, because of my old page about nitrous oxide. She said that what I told her helped a lot.

So maybe it'll help someone else.

I went in for elective surgery yesterday and had a really bad experience with nitrous oxide. They gave it me to relax while they were doing my IV. I had visions of dying and questioned whether to give up or not. There was some sort of phrase that kept going through my head the entire time. Right after they put in the IV, I jumped up and pulled it out and threw the mask off because I felt I was "crossing over" (dying).

Have you ever heard of this happening? I can't get these visions out of my head!

Well, a hospital is not the best place to take psychoactive drugs, and just before surgery is not the time when you're in the coolest and grooviest state of mind. So it's not surprising that you had a bad trip.

What happens when you take nitrous is, for most people, not anything like what happens when you take a "real", long-term hallucinogenic drug. It's more like rather suddenly mixing up dream-state and awake-state in your mind, so you can start dreaming with your eyes open for a little while, then come back to reality when the nitrous wears off, only a minute or two after you stop breathing it.

And, just as you can have horrible nightmares if you fall asleep at a stressful time, you can have a similarly horrible nitrous dream. (I'm surprised more people don't try to kill their dentists.)

But relax - a dream is all that it is.

One thing that's very important for people to realise when they take psychoactive drugs (for pleasure, or whatever) is that when everything goes all weird, that's what's meant to happen. It can be difficult to remember this when your brain's been scrambled by something really powerful (ask your local Robitussin fiend, if you can get his attention...). But this is not the case for most psychoactive compounds - most of them don't turn you into someone completely different.

So you just have to mellow out and realise that if you're seeing giant poisonous ninja lobsters coming out of the rubber walls and leaping at your throat, that's because you're on drugs.

Try to enjoy it.

If you can't enjoy it, just hang in there and endure it.

For something like nitrous that doesn't last long, you don't have to endure a whole lot.

If you're now troubled by recurring thoughts that you didn't have before, or if you start having hallucinations when you haven't taken any drugs, then get thyself to a doctor, pronto.

If you're only troubled by the memory of what happened to you in the hospital, though, then you're just freaked out by a bad event. If you've never had a bad trip before, your first one is likely to be memorably nasty. Similarly, you'd probably be troubled by the memory of being in a car crash. That, in itself, is nothing to be concerned about unless it really starts becoming an obsession and screwing up your life. Like any other bad experience, it'll fade in time.

Incidentally, I think experiences like this can make you a significantly more sensible person. This isn't because I've got some hippy-trippy idea about you connecting with the universe. It's just good to know that it really doesn't take much for your perception of the world, and your thought processes, to be changed in profound ways.

Every day, someone who's been straight as a die all their life, never touched the wacky weed, I'm high on life, blah blah blah, has a hallucination for some reason (stress, fever, food poisoning, sleep paralysis...) and decides that he or she has definitely just been talked to by God, or aliens, or ghosts, or whatever. They quit their job, they write some darn wooly-headed book, they annoy all of their friends - all because they'd never had their mind thrown for a loop before.

I'm not telling you to go out and drop acid for a year (a friend's very... experienced... father once told me that you actually need to set aside about a decade if you decide to get into LSD...). I'm just saying that if, at some point in the future, you find yourself thinking that Everything You Know Is Wrong and you've had some profound connection with the universe that's not available to normal mortals, it might be a good idea to remember that time when you freaked out in the hospital, and see if God feels like talking to you tomorrow, as well.

(If He does, by the way, try to remember that it might just be schizophrenia.)

I hope you feel better soon.

11 Responses to “Avoiding Freaking Out: A Primer”

  1. fnaah Says:

    Eloquent, caring, and wise words.


  2. reyalp Says:

    Nice post. I agree that learning just how much a tiny amount of some chemical can change you perception is a good thing, and this is much easier in a comfortable environment where you know what is going on. Of course a certain amount of critical thinking is also required... if you come out believing that change in chemistry put you in touch with God, Elvis, or your inner Thetan, you've failed the class. Nitrous fortunately has a far lower incidence of this than many alternatives ;)

    I have one quibble with your nitrous page that I've wanted to bring up for a while. The gas itself is pretty harmless, but it easy to deprive yourself of oxygen (and expose yourself to a higher concentration of CO2) while using it. When you get the gas at the dentist, they mix it with oxygen. If you breath pure nitrous from a balloon, you aren't getting any oxygen in that breath. If you breath in and out of the same container repeatedly (don't do that), you are also getting C02, and prolonging your lack of oxygen. Nitrous doesn't "kill brain cells" but hypoxia does. If you black out while doing nitrous (which I have seen, usually huffing as described above), I'd wager it was mostly due to hypoxia, and that isn't a good thing.

    I'm not saying you shouldn't use it, or that what you describe on your page is unsafe. However it is important to remember that you need oxygen. People occasionally do kill themselves by forgetting that in their pursuit of a bigger nitrous high. There is also fairly good evidence of long term harm due to reduced oxygen environments (i.e. high altitude climbers.) It's not a given that this applies to even the most extreme recreational nitrous use, but I wouldn't want to bet my brain that it doesn't.

  3. pompomtom Says:

    If you weren't in cahoots with the neighbours, would you suggest shiny-side-in or shiny-side-out?

  4. Malcolm Says:

    Funny how nitrous oxide seems more prone than the "hallucinogens" to bring on revelations about Death, Reality and the Ultimate Answers.

    BTW, I recommend reading what the 19th century American psychologist and philosopher William James

  5. DBT Says:

    I didn't think I had any knowledge to contribute here, untill I read reyalp's comments, to which I can add:
    - The body (and thus brain) has no way of detecting oxygen deprivation, which is why hypoxia is so sudden in onset - at least this is what's taught in flying school, not all of which is accurate (cf. Bernoulli vs. Newton).
    - As CO2 builds up in the body, this IS detected and results in a subconscious increase in respiration in an attempt to purge the excess CO2. Most people don't notice this as there is no pain or discomfort associated with mild elevations in CO2 levels. In a closed environment ^ resps may only accelerate the problem.
    - For trivia buffs (aka getting off topic): the shortness of breath and gradual onset of panic one gets when deprived of fresh air is due neither to O2 or CO2 levels. Rather, it's due to the sharp increase in humidity that occurs when continually rebreathing expired air. The body detects the extreme moisture levels and freaks out because of this.
    - Disclaimer: I assert the above is all true because I done found it on the internet. I am not a professional physiologist. I do however possess a CO2 fire extinguisher and am currently holding it in anticipation ...

  6. Dynastar Says:

    I too had a lousy nitrous experience when I was given it just a few months ago. I was in for some non-impacted wisdom teeth work and they offered it to me in conjunction with the normal pain killers.

    I only had the mask on for about a minute, maybe a minute and a half, but there was no dream-like sensation. I just felt sort of woozy, but constricted at the same time, like I couldn't take deep enough breaths. It sort of reminded me of how it feels before you pass out, which I've done a few times after getting blood drawn. I expressed my dislike, they stopped the flow, and soon I felt normal. The oral surgeon told me that although most folks enjoy nitrous a bad reaction is not unknown, and that he himself disliked the feeling quite a bit.

  7. loseweightslow Says:

    As a freediver who regularly and deliberately deprives himself of oxygen I want to tell you that there are no negative consequences to this. In fact I heard of one study that showed that practicing apnea (breath holding) actually led to a small increase in IQ, of a point or two. All the world's top freedivers are able to hold their breath until they pass out, and there seem to be no problems for them with doing this. Obviously, passing out underwater is not a good thing, but the equivalent in nitrous is filling a garbage bag with it, sticking your head inside and taping it around your neck. Hopefully, people can see why this is a bad idea.

  8. Eryl B. Slugflaunt Says:

    Dear Mr. Dan;

    I, the beneath signed, a long time reader, address my lonely plea to you, holding in view your massive expertise in cosmetic neuropsychopharmacy. Being the eminent field leader, indeed the mascot of neural cytoarchitectonics and brain metabolism research, I feel you will be best able to help me, with your luxuriously detailed medical training, at a distance and without having seen me. You see, I suffer from a bouquet of perplexing symptoms, these including dizziness, lack of concentration, occasional night terrors, the transcutaneous emission of a black tarry substance, and left-sided arse pain, now lasting over ten years. I am a long-term recreational user of, shall we say, heroic quantities of LSD, which (as you may well know) has no effect on ones' faculties of logic, scientific acumen or social competence. The most recent development in my condition has been a sudden onset of dull roaring in the background of my thoughts, followed by squealing, then followed by eldrich chanting and howling, whereupon I had found myself transported to a place of no fixed substance, and only of impression - the impression of terrifying pressure, ancient cold, hate, hunger, and a loathsome drooling anticipation of a victorious time when once again I and mine kind shall rise above the waves to avenge ourselves upon the mortals. In short, it was mildly disturbing, and having no further appointments that afternoon, I thought i should bring news of this phenomenon to your eminent attention. I understand that no topic is too trivial, and though I haven't asked a question per se, I am sure you will aim the ordinance of your intellect at finding for me the answer.

    I thank you in advance for your immediate and undivided attention, and eagerly await your detailed response.

  9. reyalp Says:

    That's very interesting, and I agree that it is more likely to be applicable to nitrous users than the study I was remembering, which suggested brain damage as a result of high altitude climbing:

    Regardless, it's still good to keep in mind that your nitrous balloon contains zero oxygen :)

  10. reyalp Says:

    err, I mean oxygen available for you to metabolize of course.

  11. foxyshadis Says:

    Reminds me of this story. Everyone needs a friend around to remind them that there is a reality and they'll be returning to it shortly, just in case of a freakout.

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