Bad Trips: Practical Tips for Challenging Journeys

Bad Trip
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Like telescopes pointed directly into the vast expanse of the mind, psychedelic experiences reveal aspects of reality which lie just outside the reach of everyday perception. Sometimes you glimpse fantastic star clusters hovering at the edges of your own personal potential. Other times you may find yourself gazing into an unfathomable inner darkness. Many people are quick to define these experiences as bad trips but often on the other side is the most valuable personal insight.

“The Bad Trip”

No reasonable person could call the blackness of space which fills the night sky “bad”. Terrifying and mysterious, absolutely. But bad? That’s the stuff of cosmic moralists and small-town evening news anchors. Nonsense, to put it simply. The same is true about the psychedelic space. The darkness found there is the medium through which light itself shines, without it there can be no glow.

Let’s not kid though, no fancy metaphor can really describe how distressing some psychedelic experiences can get. Depths of despair and heights of panic normally unreachable by the unaltered mind, horrific visions, wildly deviant aberrations of consciousness, unspeakable thoughts, and total collapse of one’s entire self-concept structure. These are all possible stops on the psychedelic ride. To expect anything less from a class of compounds named “Soul Manifester” is to fundamentally misunderstand the territory. The soul is not a tame place, it’s more wild than the darkest parts of the unexplored sky and very much a part of this human experience. 

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

– Carl Jung

Redefine the Trip from “Bad” to “Challenging”

To label any product of your deepest Psyche (From the Greek word for “Soul”) “bad” is to reject the piece of yourself which most desperately needs attention. The further away you push the unwanted experiences, the greater you fracture the personality. Many of those profoundly challenging psychedelic moments that are hastily discarded as “bad trips” contain psychological content which is crucial to personal development. Like red hot metal, the raw material for growth and healing is often difficult to handle. 

Challenging psychedelic trips can be some of the most valuable and positively transformative experiences of a person’s life when they learn how to navigate them skillfully. The only thing truly “bad” about many of these trips is the language used to describe them. The heroes of Harm Reduction involved with Zendo Project have captured this with the line “difficult is not the same as bad”. Casual use of the phrase “bad trip” fails to honor the growth inherent in such experiences, unnecessarily sows fear in our own communities, and acts as cheap ammunition for the misguided defamation of psychedelics.

The Difficult Psychedelic Experience 

Referring to these sometimes harrowing trips as “challenging” or “difficult” is a much more accurate, honest, and helpful way to talk about them. Yoga is difficult, lifting heavy things is difficult, and getting out of the social comfort zone is difficult. But each is beneficial. Expecting to lie on the couch then suddenly being forced to sprint somewhere is challenging, but it doesn’t make the running itself “bad”. If the expectation is purely recreational then any challenge which arises becomes almost intolerable. If growth is the intention then difficulty can become the whole point. The easier a workout, the less likely it is to make you strong. Something similar may be said of psychedelic experiences.

This is not to encourage the intentional seeking of challenging trips but to increase resilience when and where they do arise. Simply understanding that difficulty is the prerequisite for growth prepares a person for whatever may come. With a shift in perspective these challenging experiences stop being unknown monsters lurking in the shadows of possibility and become useful allies on the path towards a higher self.  

Possible Exceptions 

There have been no documented human deaths from LSD overdose and a person could literally fill their stomach with dried psilocybin mushrooms before coming close to physiological toxicity. It’s obvious that the classic psychedelics are well tolerated by most people, but much is still unknown about their neuropharmacology. It’s entirely possible that some individuals possess biological or psychological factors which may play a role in challenging subjective experiences. Difficult is not the same as bad, but claiming “there is no such thing as a bad trip” is a step too far. An allergic reaction is more than just “challenging”. Additionally, people subjected to external assault or violence while under the influence of a psychedelic may wish to describe their experience as a “bad trip”. That is certainly their right. 

Skillful Navigation

Below you will find a list of practical actions and grounded philosophical stances which can be applied in response to difficult psychedelic experiences. Each of these can be used immediately by anybody who wishes, or may be honed over a lifetime of practice.

Make Space for the Experience

A challenging psychedelic experience can be an important moment in one’s life that deserves time and space to play itself out. Be willing to change or cancel plans according to the needs of the experience. It’s ok to show up late, leave early, or miss an event entirely if that’s what feels needed.  

Hold an Intention of Growth

This will fundamentally change what it means to have a difficult time. Even the slightest orientation towards growth can transform any experience into a valuable one. 

“We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

– Carlos Castaneda

“Anything that happens to me today is in my best interest and an opportunity to learn and grow”

– Joshua Medcalf 

Get Out of the Way

Everything is as it should be, don’t get in the way. Allow whatever is happening inside of yourself to exist without suppression, let the experience take you. Unless you’re in physical danger there’s no need to really “do” anything at all. If you’re shaking just let yourself shake. If you’re crying, let yourself cry.

Seek Peer Support

Having a pre-arranged Trip Sitter is invaluable but sometimes you may benefit from more impromptu assistance so reach out to an understanding friend and ask them to sit with you. Being around people who are grounded and calm helps us to become the same. Even just saying “Hey things are getting weird, can you sit with me for a while?” would suffice. No need to try and articulate every detail of your experience immediately. If nobody is available, there are also online peer support resources such as TripSit.me.

Move Your Body, Move the Energy

Dance, wiggle, shake, squirm, stretch, jump, walk, do calisthenics, anything to get your body moving. Difficult emotions are held somatically within the nervous system so getting it moving will allow these emotions to flow through you instead of getting stagnant and creating further tension. Even subtly rocking back and forth can help to process those challenging feelings if breaking into full on dance feels like too much.

Make it Bigger

Take whatever is already happening naturally and accentuate it. The body holds a kind of wisdom which often guides us towards what we need. Help it out by making its actions bigger. If the legs are shaking, shake them more. If you notice yourself taking big sighing breaths, sigh louder.   

Name the Feelings

Feeling anxious? Say “There is anxiety”. Fearful? Say “There is fear”. Labeling what we feel helps create a spacious perspective of the feeling itself. 

Invite it All In

Carl Jung famously said “what you resist not only persists, but it will grow in size”. Cultivating a practice of invitation and acceptance towards uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and sensations keeps them all at a manageable level. This poem “The Guest House”, by everyone’s favorite Sufi mystic, describes the practice beautifully…

“This being Human is a guest house, each morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness. Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows who violently sweeps your house empty of its furniture. Still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whatever comes, for each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

– Rumi

Use Breath

Wherever you are, whatever is happening, the breath is always with you. This is one of the most deceptively simple and effective techniques to manage difficult emotions, no need for complicated techniques here. Simply bring your full attention to the breath and begin intentionally making it slower and deeper. For added effect, place one hand on the belly and breathe deeply enough to make that hand rise and fall while allowing yourself to believe that there is nothing else to do but breathe. 

Change Your Setting

It doesn’t have to be anything major, simply moving from the bedroom to the living room can make a big difference. Just don’t drive! 

Cut the Fancy Stimulus

Psychedelics can make our internal experience so stimulating that any additional external stimulus easily becomes overwhelming. Move away from loud noise, turn down the lights, put down the electronics, find a quiet space, and opt for simple, natural stimulus instead.  

Make Some Art

Draw, paint, write, color, sing, drum on something, play an instrument, arrange rocks into mandalas. This can be especially helpful in the later stages of the experience or on the comedown. It doesn’t matter if you’re good or have never done it before in your life, it’s about the process not the product. 

Remember Impermanence

It’s common to forget that all is transient, especially when tripping. This is a temporary experience produced by a substance with a known effect curve. You will come down, eventually.

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