What Is A Psychedelic Bad Trip And How Can You Avoid It. Psychedelic drugs can induce fear or distress. Many people don’t know what a bad trip is until they have one. So, it is helpful to know ahead of time what you could experience, and what you should do if you have a bad trip or if one of your friends does.
What Is a Psychedelic Bad Trip?
A trip is a period of intoxication from a hallucinogenic drug such as lysergic acid (LSD) or magic mushrooms (psilocybin). It is called a “trip” because your perceptions of the world change so dramatically, it can feel as if you have taken a trip to a strange, new land.
Most people hope that the trip will be a pleasant experience, and it might be, but it can also quickly turn unpleasant. Sometimes, it is unpleasant from the beginning. This unpleasant experience of hallucinogen intoxication is known as a “bad trip.”
It is common for unpleasant sensations, hallucinations, and thoughts to occur during a trip.1 This does not necessarily mean you are having a bad trip as these experiences can sometimes seem interesting or funny rather than upsetting or frightening.
Quick Fact: One of the earliest documented bad trips was reported by Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD. He started experiencing a bad trip and, in an attempt to soothe himself, requested some milk from his next-door neighbor who appeared to have become “a malevolent, insidious witch.
Are Certain People Exempt From Bad Trips?
When people first start experimenting with psychedelic drugs, they sometimes go through a honeymoon period. This can cause them to believe all trips are good.
Some also feel that bad trips are a myth dreamed up by the establishment to discourage people from becoming enlightened or having a good time. Others think that taking a psychedelic drug with friends or a “guide” will prevent a bad trip.
These beliefs can provide a false sense of security as there is no foolproof way to avoid having a bad trip. And the more often you take psychedelics, the greater your risk of eventually having a negative experience
Are Certain Drugs Exempt From Bad Trips?
Some people who use psychedelic drugs believe that bad trips can only happen with drugs like acid or PCP. They think that they can’t have this type of experience with drugs they perceive as being safe, like ecstasy or magic mushrooms.
But there is no such thing as a “safe” drug. In fact, all psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs can cause a bad trip, even ecstasy and magic mushrooms. Other drugs, such as weed (marijuana) and cocaine, can also produce intense, distressing effects5—even in people who usually have a good time when intoxicated from these substances.
Signs and Symptoms of a Bad Trip
It’s impossible to predict how a hallucinogen will affect you, and trip symptoms can vary a great deal. They can be mild or intense and range from upsetting or overwhelming thoughts to frightening hallucinations and delusions that can lead to accidents
Quick Facts: Incidentally, many accidents that occur while under the influence of hallucinogens happen as the result of delusions that are not part of a bad trip. Someone might believe that they can fly, for example, or that they are indestructible. These kinds of delusions are unusual but serious injuries and deaths have happened as a result.
Though a highly individualized experience, there are some aspects that are commonly described by people who have had a bad trip.
Time dilation is the experience of time standing still, which can make it feel as if the unpleasant aspects of the trip will never end. Some people report having absolutely no perception of time at all during a trip.8
Scientists are still somewhat unclear as to what causes the distortion of time, whether this effect is due to neurochemical impacts of the drug on the body or if it is caused by an altered state of consciousness
Tip: If someone is having a bad trip, it may be reassuring to tell them it won’t go on forever, even if they feel as if it will.
Negative Reinterpretations and Paranoia
A bad trip may cause you to think that the people you once thought were safe can no longer be trusted. Previously positive or neutral interpretations of life or relationships can suddenly become negative.
If this happens, it can be upsetting both for the person experiencing it and their companions (who feel powerless to help). Someone having a bad trip might feel that their life is worthless, that someone they normally feel fine about is acting against them, that they are bad, or that the whole world is bad or corrupt.
These feelings can be all-consuming and cause the person having a bad trip to panic and try and get away from the people around them.
Tip: Generally, it is unwise to allow someone who is having a bad trip to go off on their own. But be aware that acting confrontational or following them may increase their feelings of antagonism or paranoia. Try to have a trusted friend accompany them, saying they want to help them stay safe.
In some cases, involving experienced medical personnel may be warranted, even if highly upsetting for the person having a bad trip.
Most of the hallucinations that people have while tripping take the form of visual distortions such as walls “breathing,” colored or geometric formations, or illusions.10
Sometimes these distortions are extremely vivid, such as a familiar person’s face morphing into that of a demon. Occasionally, hallucinations take the form of seeing beings or objects that don’t even exist.
Tip: Usually, people who are tripping are aware that these hallucinations are the effects of a drug—compared to someone with schizophrenia, for instance, who believes that their hallucinations to be real.11 So, someone experiencing hallucinations with a bad trip may feel reassured by confirming that what they are seeing is part of the trip.
Your mood can change dramatically when you are tripping. Feelings of sadness and despair can reach new depths, while anxiety can quickly develop into panic.6
Although rare, some people using hallucinogens may experience persistent mood changes over time, particularly if they have a history of mental illness, although this effect can occur in anyone using these drugs.12
Tip: While acts of violence or self-harm are unusual while tripping,13 tell someone as soon as possible if you are having any thoughts about harming yourself or someone else. You are not thinking clearly and indulging in these thoughts may have regrettable consequences
How Long Does a Bad Trip Last?
When taking a hallucinogen, the length of the trip can vary depending on the drug. Some drugs are known to have short trips of only 15 minutes (like synthetic DMT, a white powder that is typically smoked), while others can involve a trip that lasts up to 12 hours (such as LSD).12
The most intense period of the trip typically occurs from one to three hours after the drug is consumed, so time will usually ease the most extreme aspects of the trip. That said, the effects will often continue for an additional six to 12 hours after that, during which time the person will not be able to sleep.14
How to Stop a Bad Trip
Although it is not possible to “switch off” the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, a bad trip may be able to be transformed into a more positive experience. Research suggests that “set and setting”—which refers to state of mind and environment—play a role in how a trip plays out.15
With this in mind, here are a few things you can do to potentially help stop a bad trip:
- Avoid people or places that you may find upsetting.
- Don’t take psychedelics when something is bothering you.
- Keep away from environments that may be over-stimulating, such as busy public places.
- Stay in the presence of people that you trust.
While these tips may help, they do not guarantee a “good” trip. For instance, one of the characteristics of hallucinogenic drugs is that they can cause you to see and think about the world in a very different way from how you usually do. So, the previously trusted friend can quickly change and appear to be deceitful, mean-spirited, or even evil.
Seeking Help for a Bad Trip
If you or the person experiencing a bad trip is open to receiving medical help, going to a walk-in clinic or the emergency room is an option. There may be medical interventions that could help reduce the effects of the trip.14
Never attempt to self-medicate by taking other drugs as this is risky and could worsen the effects of the trip or cause drug interactions. It can also lead to problems with other substances taken in an attempt to calm down.
How to have a safe psychedelic trip
Humans have consumed substances with consciousness-altering properties for millennia. Traditional societies used them in healing rituals, initiation ceremonies and to make contact with the gods and the dead, among other practices. Today they are known as psychedelics, and include the naturally occurring compounds psilocybin (found in ‘magic mushrooms’), DMT and mescaline; the hallucinogenic tea Ayahuasca, used by indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin; and the hallucinogenic shrub iboga, found in West Africa.
Synthetic hallucinogenic compounds, most famously LSD, emerged in the 20th century. The synthetic ‘party drugs’ MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and ketamine (used in medicine as an anaesthetic) are not technically classified as psychedelics, but they also produce consciousness-altering effects and are often considered under the same broad umbrella as the classic psychedelics.
In the industrialized West, psychedelic substances, especially LSD and magic mushrooms, burst on to the scene in the 1950s and ’60s with intense research interest in their therapeutic potential. However, an establishment backlash began in the late-1960s as the drugs became associated with the counterculture movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. Fermenting the eventual clampdown, the psychedelics-researcher-turned-evangelist Timothy Leary exhorted American youth to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’. Tales spread of ‘bad trips’ and associated suicides, and the field of psychedelic research fell silent for decades.
We are now living through what’s been described as a ‘psychedelic renaissance’ that began in the 1990s. Research groups around the world, notably at Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, have been pumping out studies uncovering the neural basis of the drugs’ effects and exploring their apparent therapeutic benefits, especially when used as an adjunct to psychotherapy.
Research trials suggest that, when used as part of psychotherapy, the benefits of psychedelics include, but are not limited to, alleviating depression and anxiety (including for people who have not benefited from other forms of therapy or drug treatment), tackling longstanding symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, treating addiction, and calming existential distress in people with terminal illnesses.
Superior trial outcomes correlate with participants’ reports of having a mystical or transcendent experience during their psychedelic session. In fact, many people who take a psychedelic drug describe the experience as among the most personally meaningful of their lives. Many are changed by their trip, displaying greater open-mindedness, humility and feelings of connectedness with humanity and the wider world.
Although they can lead to subjectively similar experiences, different psychedelic drugs exert their effects in the brain via different mechanisms. For instance, psilocybin, mescaline and LSD act principally via the 5-HT2A receptor system (5-HT, also known as serotonin, is a neurotransmitter involved in mood and perception), whereas DMT acts on the 5-HT2A system and sigma-1 receptors involved in neuronal signaling. Meanwhile, ketamine interacts with another brain chemical called glutamate by blocking the NMDA receptors that this neurotransmitter usually binds with.
At a global level, psychedelic drugs have in common that they increase levels of entropy in the brain by allowing for communication between neural regions that don’t usually interact, and reducing the activity of a group of neural areas known collectively as the ‘default mode network’, which is involved in self-conscious thought. It’s believed that these neural changes lead to ‘ego dissolution’ and facilitate the mystical feelings of oneness and transcendence that are common to many trips.
The upsurge in research interest in psychedelic drugs and reports of their transcendent, life-changing effects have led to a steady flow of newspaper stories documenting their potential, and the publication of a spate of popular books about psychedelics. As curiosity about these drugs and their beneficial effects continues to grow, it raises the question of whether it’s possible for individuals to take these substances safely – and, if so, how?
Safety and legality issues
There are certain physical and mental health conditions that make it inadvisable to experiment with psychedelics, including heart problems and a history of psychosis or bipolar disorder. Antidepressant or antipsychotic medication could also interact unpredictably with the psychedelic. ‘Chronically, SSRIs [a form of antidepressant] may reduce the effect of psychedelics while other antidepressants may have other effects. But at this point there’s just not enough known about the effect of other psychoactive drugs on psychedelics,’ explains Sandeep Nayak, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins who has trained as a facilitator in psychedelic research studies.
‘If you have underlying mental health concerns or are experiencing depression, anxiety, or any medical issues, talk to a psychedelic-friendly therapist or doctor before taking substances,’ advises Sara Gael, director of harm reduction at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in the United States.
Even if you are fully fit and healthy, experts unanimously say that it’s a bad idea to take a psychedelic drug on your own, especially if it’s your first time. Ben Sessa is a psychiatrist, based in the United Kingdom, who has been researching the therapeutic effects of psychedelics for more than 15 years. He rejects the framing of the question in terms of whether it is possible to have a safe trip. ‘It’s like: “Is a knife safe or dangerous?”, it’s a ridiculous question. It’s about risk/benefit analysis.’ But he, like others, warns against journeying solo.
‘There are more risk factors [on your own] because there isn’t somebody there to manage your feelings or your behaviour,’ he says. ‘More importantly, you could be disorientated, and try to get in your car and drive away. Anything from the most benign behaviour – going online and buying 200 kg of avocados – to much more dangerous, there’s nobody who is not high who is able to temper your behaviour and make sure things are okay.’ Psychedelics have a pround effect on cognition, perception and coordination and you should take care to be in a physically safe, controlled environment. You should not plan to be driving, walking in traffic, be in high places or other dangerous environments which require you to be alert and coordinated.
Ideally you should identify an experienced and trusted guide or therapist to work with you before, during and after your psychedelic experience. Many cities in the US, Europe and elsewhere have psychedelics societies and these can be a good place to begin your search for a guide. At a minimum, make sure you are with a trusted and competent friend to keep you as safe as possible for the duration of the drug’s effects (consider, for instance, that the mind-altering effects of LSD can typically last up to 12 hours).
Another glaring practical issue is that, in most jurisdictions around the world, psychedelic drugs are illegal and if you are caught in possession, you will face criminal charges. This also has important implications for sourcing drugs safely. Françoise Bourzat, who has worked as a psychedelics guide in California for decades and is the author of the book Consciousness Medicine (2019), says that to source the drugs you will have little option other than to rely on word of mouth. ‘Always test your drugs,’ adds Gael. ‘Test kits are available on the DanceSafe website.’
If you decide to go ahead and it’s your first time, it’s sensible to start out with a weaker dose and, as mentioned, to pay due attention to the duration of the drug’s effects. The PsychonautWiki community encyclopaedia has information on dosing, duration and other practical issues.
What to do
The most effective way to minimize the risk of a bad trip occurring is to prepare well. The Johns Hopkins advice is for guides and therapists to discuss the broad range of psychological effects that can be experienced under the influence of a psychedelic, including out-of-body sensations, the evocation of powerful memories, distortions to time and space, and feelings of oneness with the world, to name but a few. It’s also important to pay due attention to what Leary called ‘set and setting’. Most relevant to the preparation phase, ‘set’ describes the mindset and intention you bring to the psychedelic journey, and an experienced guide will work on this with you. The ‘setting’ refers to the physical, social and cultural environment in which the user takes a psychedelic drug.
‘Are you entering the experience with a certain need in your life? Do you want to explore something? Do you need healing? Do you have an emotional relationship that is problematic, burdened by childhood issues?’ asks Bourzat. ‘Do you want to be connected more with spirits or explore your relationship with nature? You don’t have to have a pathology to have an experience, but it’s a good idea to know why you’re doing it. What are you looking for in the journey? That’s the preparation.’ Other basic aspects of preparation, she adds, include writing a journal and preparing the body by fasting and avoiding alcohol.
Researchers have known about the importance of the ‘setting’ in the psychedelic experience for decades. In a series of studies published in 1960, Robert Hyde, a doctor at Boston Psychopathic Hospital, spent three years observing how the effects of LSD varied in different contexts. For instance, in the second year of his research, volunteers were treated as ‘research objects’ and given structured tasks to complete, whereas in the final year, the experience involved more chance for relaxation and personal support from and rapport with the researchers. Needless to say, the final year was generally associated with positive psychedelic experiences whereas the second year led to more unpleasant outcomes.
If you take a hallucinogenic drug at a party, even the attitude – the ‘set’ – of your friends could influence the ‘setting’ and thereby make a difference to your own experience. A field study in 2002 found that, on the rare occasions when people taking MDMA/ecstasy at parties reported bad experiences, this usually coincided with the user’s friends having pessimistic expectations or concerns about the trip. ‘A sense that another user, particularly a friend or acquaintance who is part of the collective, is not having a pleasant experience may have a deleterious effect on the group as a whole,’ the researchers said.
When it comes to a more formal, guided psychedelic journey, Bourzat explains that the setting is literally where the journey is happening: ‘What is the location? Who is sitting with you? Who is helping? What is the expertise and style of the guide? It also includes the length of time … What is guiding the work? Is it nature? Is it someone singing for you? Is there music playing? Is it quiet? All these different elements create the setting.’
She adds that commonsense steps to take include ensuring that the room is comfortable with soft furnishings and that any music is conducive to a pleasant experience. ‘I wouldn’t play rock and roll or house music. It should be expansive, not just classical but also more contemporary, or new age or tribal, African, Tibetan – anything ambient that’s conducive to introspection,’ says Bourzat.
If you have any frightening experiences or difficult overwhelming emotions, the usual advice is to surrender to these rather than trying to suppress them or run away from them. ‘Whether the disturbance consists of frightening illusions or internal imagery, difficult thoughts and feelings about some past or present personal issue, or anxiety related to a radical change in sense of self (eg, temporary loss of self-identity), the volunteer is encouraged to mentally surrender to the experience, trusting that her or his usual state of consciousness will return when the drug effects resolve,’ state the safety guidelines from Johns Hopkins University.
Following your psychedelic journey, it’s critical that you process the meaning of your experience with a guide or therapist. This ‘integration’ should take place during the two to three months after your experience. ‘When people take drugs recreationally, like just go to a festival and take LSD and then go home, that’s where they tend to run into problems because there’s a lack of integration of the experience,’ says Sessa.
One of the key aims of integration, Bourzat explains, is to carry the beneficial aspects of the psychedelic journey into everyday life. ‘If someone had a beautiful experience of nature, and in the journey they experienced beautiful birds, a meadow, then I would say you actually need to do that in your life. You need to cultivate that experience, and maintain that goodness that you connected with in the journey,’ she says. ‘Or say someone connected with a loved one they had lost, and felt love and tenderness and dealt with unfinished business in the journey, then I would suggest some ritual in real life – writing to the deceased person or beginning a journal and making that part of their life.’
Gael notes that integration therapists have different approaches and backgrounds. It’s important to find a guide or therapist whom you trust and who is nonjudgmental. ‘One helpful resource for finding integration support is the Psychedelic Support [network],’ she says.
Key points – How to have a safe psychedelic trip
- Remember that psychedelic substances are illegal in most jurisdictions.
- If you have physical or mental health issues, speak to a sympathetic doctor before experimenting with psychedelics. People with a history of psychosis or bipolar disorder are usually not allowed to participate in psychedelic research trials because they face heightened risks.
- Ensure you are in a physically safe, controlled environment. Always start with a low dose.
- Don’t take psychedelic drugs on your own. Find an experienced guide or therapist whom you trust. CLICK HERE TO CHAT WITH US
- Use word of mouth at psychedelic societies and elsewhere to source psychedelic substances safely, and use online testing kits to ensure their quality. Alternatively, for greater safety, consider signing up to a research trial conducted at a university.
- Remember the importance of set and setting. Work with a guide who will help you prepare for your psychedelic journey, sit with you during the experience, and conduct integration with you for several weeks or months afterwards.