Having A Bad Trip On Psychedelics: Is There Some Value?

Having A Bad Trip On Psychedelics: Is There Some Value?

A ‘bad trip’ is something most users of psychedelics fear most. Whether new to alternative drugs or not, the simple fear of having a negative experience can turn people off. Even those microdosing psychedelics may be wary.

You might not want the experience to be too intense, out-of-control, or negative. You may want to gain new perspectives, without feeling like you’re losing your mind, which is understandable. Regardless, you want to feel some control.

Although the idea of a bad trip may seem fearful, many psychedelic users find these trips to be valuable. In fact, at times, they’re even more valuable than positive experiences.

But before diving into the potential value of bad psychedelic trips, let’s first outline what we mean by the term ‘bad trip’.

What Is A Bad Trip?

Many associate a bad trip with the worst-case scenarios, such as having a psychotic reaction, or feeling trapped in a nightmare kind of reality. One often imagines a bad trip ending with a hospital visit or a run-in with police. Or, worse, feeling so overwhelmed and out-of-control that the open window nearby looks good to jump through.

Some of these scenarios are certainly possible, like needing medical attention. But these worst-case scenarios are still rare and do not characterize most psychedelic trips — despite the stigma surrounding them.

Bridget Huber, a report and research assistant for Michael Pollan, has pointed out the rate of psychotic reactions and suicide attempts during an LSD session. Based on thousands of sessions from the 50s and 60s, these are comparable to the rate seen among patients receiving psychotherapy. In other words, it is extremely low.

A 2017 survey from Johns Hopkins asked nearly 2,000 respondents about bad psychedelic trips. For 39 percent of respondents, a bad trip was one of the five most challenging situations in their life. But extreme reactions were rare. 2.6 percent reported behaving aggressively or violently. 2.7 percent sought medical help. Lastly, there were just three cases of psychotic symptoms, and three cases of attempted suicide.

More commonly, a bad trip will involve the following.

  • Feelings of confusion, paranoia, fear, anxiety, panic, or dread
  • Thought loops (when someone has the same thought or repeats the same sequence of thoughts)
  • Delusional thinking
  • Fear associated with the loss of your sense of self, time, or space
  • Being overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience
  • Disturbing perceptual changes or hallucinations
  • Worries about ‘going crazy’
  • The fear of never coming down or feeling normal again

How Often Do Bad Trips Occur?

In terms of how often bad trips occur, Huber says, based on her findings, they are rare.

“I didn’t find much information about how common bad trips are — one 2010 analysis of psilocybin studies done between 1999 and 2008 looked at the experiences of 110 patients. Negative experiences weren’t common and seemed to be dose-dependent — higher doses of psilocybin were associated with higher rates of adverse reactions. All of the short-term adverse reactions were ‘successfully managed through interpersonal support.’”

It’s also worth noting that researchers in recent psychedelics trials do not tend to report the occurrence of bad trips. Alan K. Davis, a psychedelic researcher from Johns Hopkins, underlines the main psychedelics side effects observed in psilocybin studies. He notes them as “mild to moderate transient anxiety… during the acute effects of psilocybin”.

In a controlled, clinical setting, it seems that bad trips are unlikely. They are more likely to occur when used outside of such a setting. This emphasizes why self-medicating psychedelics can be a risky proposition. It also shows why things like MDMA therapy with trained professionals is on the rise.

Many Users Find Bad Trips Valuable

According to the aforementioned Johns Hopkins survey, many respondents found their negative experience to be beneficial. Six respondents who had struggled with suicidal thoughts found that these thoughts disappeared after their worst experience.

Most respondents said their bad trip was “meaningful” or “worthwhile”. Also, 34 percent said their most challenging psilocybin experience was one of the five most meaningful experiences of their life. Another 84 percent said they benefited from the challenging parts of their trip. Lastly, 46 percent claimed they would repeat their negative trip; even despite the challenges.

Roland Griffiths, who led the study, has this to add.

“The counterintuitive finding that extremely difficult experiences can sometimes also be very meaningful experiences is consistent with what we see in our studies with psilocybin – that resolution of a difficult experience, sometimes described as catharsis, often results in positive personal meaning or spiritual significance.”

That’s all interesting to note, and goes to show how a bad trip can actually be a positive experience for some.

Why A Bad Trip Can Be Valuable

Bad trips can be valuable for many different reasons. As Griffiths explains, these experiences can be cathartic — they can bring out negative emotions and feelings that are often repressed. This is also why psychedelics for depression is continuing to gain popularity. Or why there have been promising results with controlled psychedelic drugs for other mental health issues.

At times, a bad trip can tap into psychological and personal issues during and experience. These may include the following.

  • Past trauma and abuse
  • Negative self-image, self-criticism, low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness
  • Mistakes you’ve made that have negatively impacted yourself or others, which you don’t want to repeat
  • Your deepest fears, worries, and anxieties
  • Existential themes like death, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom
  • Addictions and negative habits

Dealing with any of these issues during a psychedelic experience can be challenging. But, since these are important issues, many gain a new perspective by confronting them. The bad trip can later be seen as meaningful, leading to improved mental health.

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What A Bad Experience Can Teach Us

Even the very worst and most nightmarish trips can be valuable. While scary in the moment, afterwards, many process the information differently. This leads to lessons about how best to deal with negative or intense experiences. In other words, bad trips can be a form of training your brain about dealing with uncomfortable experiences in life.

Negative experiences can teach a valuable lesson about respecting the power of psychedelics. And, thanks to things like psychedelic therapy, more people are able to control their experience in a safe environment.

Based on the potential value of a bad trip, many people prefer not to use the term ‘bad trip’ at all. If a negative or uncomfortable psychedelic experience can be highly meaningful, spiritual, and ultimately positive, can one really define the experience as bad? For this reason, oftentimes, it is more accurate to refer to these kinds of experiences as ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult’. Like most challenging experiences in life, a difficult psychedelic experience holds the potential for a great deal of meaning and value.

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Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

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