Like telescopes pointed directly into the vast expanse of the mind, psychedelic experiences reveal aspects of reality that 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, ego death, and total collapse of one’s entire self-concept structure. No wonder we call it a bad trip.
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 wilder 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 that 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 that 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.”
The 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 harrowingly bad 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 and 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 that 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 bad 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 toward a higher self.
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 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 that 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.
Scary, but True, Trip Stories
Everyone’s story is different, but hearing how others process their experiences can be helpful when rationalizing your own.
Haley Nahman, Features Director at Man Repeller
“Unlike natural psychedelics, LSD is unmistakably chemical. It did not make me feel at one with nature so much as fearful of it. I watched, uneasily, as freckles swam around on my thighs like tiny autonomous bumper cars. I dipped my hands into the sand over and over, observing how the granules clung to my skin like sticky magnets. I watched the murky blue expanse in front of me as it tilted almost imperceptibly towards me, the water threatening to swallow me whole.
As I disappeared further into the trip, my physical surroundings were drowned out by the gravitational swirl of my mind. To this day, I don’t have the words to describe where I went, except to say that I was trapped in abstract thought, struggling to remember where I was, only occasionally registering that I was me—on a beach, okay—before disappearing back into the inky wormhole.”
Boy George, as Told in Take It Like a Man, on an Experience with LSD
“Everything was breathing and coming at me. I started shrinking and feeling scared. We had to leave… I was tripping so badly I couldn’t get myself to the toilet. Marilyn led me to the loo in hysterics and left me staring at the bowl. I caught my melting face in the mirror and started to freak. ‘I can’t go, I can’t’ [then] I pissed myself.”
Niño del Mar Shares his First Time Taking Shrooms
“I had the first two amazing hours…However, after these 2 hours, there was a deep sense of disturbance subtly arising. I was in discovery mode with no real questioning or intention… I could say I was just on a spaceship to now-where and with no actual support to keep me grounded. Randomness and unbearable reality kicked in.
Things started to shift to a dark side. It was getting late. The swell was coming up and I was half-naked without shoes and unable to make the best rational decisions…I perceived myself as an alien. I was out of myself but in a human body. I didn’t quite understand why I had legs or arms. I was recreating in my head repeating the scenario over and over again. Like a broken record and just couldn’t get out. I saw other people coming and going but felt they were aliens too doing their thing. I fell on a matrix.”
Below you will find a list of practical actions and grounded philosophical stances that can be applied in response to difficult psychedelic experiences. Each of these can be used immediately by anyone wanting to mitigate a bad trip. And, also valuable for anyone on a spiritual or psychedelic journey.
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 okay 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
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
Turn a bad trip into a boogie! 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 that 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.
“Anything that happens to me today is in my best interest and an opportunity to learn and grow”Joshua Medcalf
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. If you want to call it a bad trip, go for it. If you can switch the language to say, “This is hard right now,” you may be able to better recognize that this will pass.
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.”
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, there is 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 to your set and setting. 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.
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.
The Silver Lining of Bad Trips
A recent study suggests that bad psychedelic trips have an upside: people who have experienced negative trips transform the narrative into valuable experiences after. The study performed in-depth interviews with 50 Norwegian individuals who used psychedelics and found that:
“Almost all participants had frightening experiences when using psychedelics, and many described these as bad trips. The key feature of a bad trip was a feeling of losing oneself or going crazy, or ego dissolution. Most users said that these experiences could be avoided by following certain rules, based on tacit knowledge in the subcultures of users…Some also rejected the validity of the term bad trip altogether, arguing that such experiences reflected the lack of such competence.
Finally, and most importantly, most participants argued that unpleasant experiences during bad trips had been beneficial and had sometimes given them deep existential and life-altering insights.”
In a nutshell, challenging trips are definitely scary at the moment, but they’re temporary and—most importantly—can be turned around into a positive experience.