It’s New Year’s Eve, a young lady named Defne and her group of intrepid friends were at one of their homes, planning to take psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms). But Defne was on the fence. She was unsure if she truly wanted to trip on psychedelic drugs and had no higher calling to do so: this would be a purely recreational thing. But, “Why not?” she thought. After all, psychedelics appear to have the capacity to bring folks together and open hearts and minds – seemingly more so than alcohol. One by one, her companions consumed doses of the psychedelic fungus, and Defne increasingly felt left out. Plus, it was the last day of 2022. So despite her misgivings, she “did it anyway.”
Time passed, the ecstasy and lightheadedness began to kick in, and all was going swimmingly. Then, without a direct trigger she could identify, Defne “got lost in her head, and everything changed.” Suddenly she felt unwelcome — “like no one wanted me there” — and her childhood fears of abandonment were turbocharged. “Then I started seeing scary faces on the ceiling,” she recalls. “It lasted a couple of hours. I was freaking out. I threw up, wrapped myself in blankets, and cried.”
This sounds like a rather “bad trip.” It’s a phrase that may evoke a shudder, a wry grin, or simply a shrug. If psychedelic experiences rank among the most powerful moments of people’s lives, then one gone awry could take the top slot. But can a psychedelic trip ever be entirely godawful? Could the challenges of the infamous bad trip reap some rewards despite the distress?
What Do We Mean by “Bad Trip” With Regards to Psychedelic Drugs?
It may go without saying that most want to avoid the experience of a “bad trip.” Rightly so. Psychedelics can shake your center. Some have had very real, and quite painful, trips with long-lasting impact. That said, it is possible that a bad trip has the potential to yield some transformative results — especially if it was preceded by professional preparation and followed by structured integration.
A 2020 paper suggests that some users of psychedelic drugs are able to narratively transform their “challenging trips into valuable experiences,” while others may struggle to do so for some period of time, if ever. The study reports that 80% of the 50 participants felt that they had benefited from the experience in some way. Finding that, “unpleasant experiences during bad trips had been beneficial and had sometimes given them deep existential and life-altering insights.” How you make sense of the trip is key.(1)
Even when the participants struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, they tended to walk away with a sense that they had learned something valuable from the ordeal. This largely comes down to the uniquely human ability to craft new narratives around negative events. By extrapolating important life lessons from challenging psychedelic episodes, these individuals emerged from their trips with feelings of accomplishment, growth, and new wisdom.(2)
“[Over] the following three weeks, I woke up each morning so happy just to be alive,” one study participant recalls. “I felt that I had been given a gift… I don’t think that I would experience this feeling if it weren’t for the extreme distress that I experienced.” Another stresses that they have gained more insight from their bad trips than those which have gone more smoothly. Saying, “It’s the [bad] trip that shows you some sides of yourself that you perhaps have tried to diminish, that probably are the most important ones to understand.”(1)
Psychedelic medicine facilitator and temazcal sweat lodge provider Karlos Pacheco agrees. “Many people say they have a difficult experience because they saw a lot of darkness or demons. But most of the time, when people say they had a bad trip, it’s because they are unable to face some parts of themselves.”
It’s possible that some enter these profound psychedelic experiences only expecting to see beautiful visions and geometric shapes. “But when there are things inside the psyche that require inner work to heal, the medicine shows that. It’s not a bad trip, it’s just seeing the unseen. You can learn to face anything,” Pacheco says. Psychedelics can amplify negative thought patterns, opening the door for them to be flipped.
Like the participants of the study, if you do experience a challenging journey, and you are able, you may be helped by creating your own powerful, positive, and personal storytelling around the event. This can be aided by journaling, talking, or making art or music.(3)
Bad trip narratives may be a potent coping mechanism, opening for fruitful meaning-making and enabling users to make sense of frightening experiences. At the same time, these stories make it easier, or at least more likely, to continue the use of psychedelics. When even bad experiences become good, an important threshold against psychedelic drug use disappears.”―Liridona Gashi, Making “bad trips” good: How users of psychedelics narratively transform challenging trips into valuable experiences.(1)
From Bad to Good, Navigating Your Inner Journey
The immediate aftermath and the days following the trip (whose negative aspects hopefully were not exacerbated by any real-life factors) are key. Suppose a person returns to a supportive domain and has the space to integrate the psychedelic experience, including with a trained therapist, trusted tripsitter, or even a close and loving friend group. In that case, it’s more likely the person will be able to center themselves and view any difficulties in a more positive self-growth context. A challenging psychedelic experience has a better chance to bear fruit if you are supported and have time to digest the experience. It’s also helpful if you’re able to spend time in nature and not be compelled to prematurely enter busy or stressful environments.(4)
Defne, for instance, was among her closest friends in a safe, closed environment. “After a while, my friends came and gently talked me out of it, a dog licked my face, and I was fine,” she says. “I went and walked barefoot on the grass in the park, and it worked wonders. I got exactly what I needed, but the timing was sh**y.”
Not only is it about set and setting, but the “matrix” reality. According to 1960s psychedelic researcher Betty Eisner this is the sum of the environment from which an individual comes, the environment that the individual occupies during the journey, and the environment that the individual returns to after successful integration. In other words, you’ll likely want and need some support to face and integrate your experience, especially if it’s brought up some painful thoughts or feelings or looping internal self-criticism. Professional support should be sought if any underlying mental health issues have come closer to the surface. This remains perhaps the greatest danger to general psychedelic use, even when dosing is responsible.(5)
Psychedelic trips can also go from bad to good during the journey. “Everybody’s faces looked quite aggressive,” says Andrew, who had embarked on an acid trip at an underground club in an industrial part of east London. He felt the urge to leave and go home, as the gray clouds of a looming bad trip began to coalesce around him. Stress and anxiety built to almost unbearable levels.
But rather than succumbing to a “doom spiral,” he managed to gather himself, dose a little MDMA, and go on the dance floor. As he stepped gently with the beat, his mind underwent a profound shift. (It should be noted that while Andrew’s experience turned positive, mixing and combining psychedelic substances can often intensify and complicate the experience and may cause dangerous side effects, and is therefore not recommended.)
“My chest started telling my head that everything was okay,” he recalls. A realization that he had repressed something for his entire life soon came over him. It concerned his mother’s traumatic upbringing in which she suffered sustained abuse. His mind wandered, the dance floor “exploded” in front of him, and he cried for the first time in 20 years. “It was the most powerful, positive psychological shift I’ve ever experienced,” he adds. Suddenly, “all of the people that I had seen as threatening, all wore smiling faces.”
Did he reach a pivotal mental state and take the correct turn at the fork in the road? Time has since passed, and he shares that he feels confident that he is reaping the benefits. He says he’s experiencing significantly increased well-being and cognitive capacities while reducing stress levels. “The voice in my head, the ‘inner dialogue’ if you will, was entirely absent for at least two weeks. All I heard in my head was silence,” he recalls. The voice “only begins to return” when he has worked intensely without a break for long periods, or while hungover.
While navigating psychedelic trips, you should make sure you’re in a comfortable environment, and that you are mentally prepared for what could be a challenging journey. Some, particularly those with less experience exploring altered states of consciousness, may not have the wherewithal to grab a bad trip by the scruff of the neck. Especially if it’s their first time taking psychedelics and they are without qualified support.
A first-of-a-kind study on the prevalence of bad trips notes that of 613 respondents, 59% reported not having seriously challenging experiences. While 9% said they suffered functional impairment for at least a day, and 2.6% sought psychiatric or medical assistance.(6)
Defne is fortunate in that she says she was able to find the good part of her “bad trip” and is looking on the bright side. “It was good to see what my biggest fear is,” she says in reference to her fear of being shunned by a group. As a result of that worry, she had been a bit of a people-pleaser, agreeing to do things she wasn’t enthusiastic about. Now, she says, “I never do anything that doesn’t feel 100% good and right in my gut.” The main lesson from her experience was, “to trust my initial feelings about situations.”
Perhaps that’s something we can all learn, particularly when considering exploring psychedelics.
Names were changed to protect identities.
This material is not intended as a replacement or substitute for any legal or medical advice. Always consult a medical professional about your health needs. Psychedelics are widely illegal in the United States, and readers should always be informed about local, state, and federal regulations regarding psychedelics or other drugs.
- Gashi, L., Sandberg, S., & Pedersen, W. (2021). Making “bad trips” good: How users of psychedelics narratively transform challenging trips into valuable experiences. International Journal of Drug Policy, 87, 102997. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102997
- Jääskeläinen, I. P., Klucharev, V., Panidi, K., & Shestakova, A. N. (2020, June 8). Neural processing of narratives: From individual processing to viral propagation. Frontiers. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2020.00253/full
- O’Callaghan, C., Hubik, D. J., Dwyer, J., Williams, M., & Ross, M. (2020). Experience of Music Used With Psychedelic Therapy: A Rapid Review and Implications. Journal of Music Therapy, 57(3), 282–314. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/thaa006
- Fadiman, J. (2011). The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide. Simon and Schuster.
- Eisner, B. (1997). Set, Setting, and Matrix. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 29(2), 213–216. https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.1997.10400190
- Simonsson, O., Hendricks, P. S., Chambers, R., Osika, W., & Goldberg, S. B. (2023). Prevalence and associations of challenging, difficult or distressing experiences using classic psychedelics. Journal of Affective Disorders, 326, 105–110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2023.01.073