Why We Need to Talk About “Bad Trips”

By Patrick Smith|May 30, 2017

Although psychedelics are going to shape the future of mental health therapy, these powerful mind-altering substances shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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You’re on your deathbed.

You’re not just witnessing a hazy, distant vision. You’re not hallucinating or dreaming. You’re really there, unable to move or see, coddled in heavy sheets and pierced by constricting tubes.

You’re experiencing the last moments of millions of humans, all at once.

We feel the presence of our worried family surrounding the bed. We feel our heartbeats weaken and fade, as our breathing slows to nothing.

We’re all trapped in an eternal nightmare, with no way out, no hope of redemption.

How the hell do we get out of this without losing our sanity?

Just a bad trip. It’ll all be OK. Just a bad trip.

The “Bad Trip”

It’s easy to get enthusiastic about the positive aspects of psychedelics. The rising tide of scientific studies, the growing online and grassroots communities, the surge of anecdotal accounts. Everything points towards an inevitable, transformative psychedelic renaissance.

Although it’s looking certain that these amazing substances are going to shape the future of mental health therapy, and perhaps the direction of our culture… we need to stay in control. It’s important to remember that psychedelics are powerful, and potentially dangerous.

Stories from the 60s and 70s about people staring at the sun until blind, or murdering babies, have been proven to be totally falsified. But anyone who’s tried a moderate-to-large dose of a classic psychedelic will testify that these powerful mind-altering substances shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Many people do have traumatic experiences with psilocybin and LSD. But most often it’s due to taking too much, taking them in a negative environment, or neglecting to prepare enough support and guidance for their experience.

Clinical studies using these psychedelics very, very rarely produce a traumatic experience for their participants. We can probably attribute this to the fact that in most research environments, people given psychedelics are surrounded by support and guidance – they’re often kept in a comfortable room with relaxing music playing, and have one or even two trained psychologists there at all times to guide them through any difficult encounters.

But as psychedelics grow in popularity once more, we can expect to see many people taking them without adequate preparation, in non-ideal environments, and without proper support and guidance.

This is why we need to talk about The “Bad Trip” — what it is, how we can cope with it, and how we can work to prevent it.

It’s Not All Rosy…

In December last year, we saw a flurry of studies released in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that added fuel to the fire for the healing benefits of psilocybin. Two major studies reported that when psilocybin was administered to patients with terminal illness, the experience helped them come to terms with death, and reduced depression and anxiety scores. It was really promising stuff, and everyone in the psychedelic community was delighted that psychedelic science was continuing to take huge strides forward.

At the same time as these two studies, a smaller study was released that looked at the current reality of psychedelic use; people taking psilocybin outside of a clinical environment. It got nowhere near as much attention as the research into depression.

The study surveyed 2000 users of psilocybin who reported having at least one ‘challenging experience’ with the drug. Although most of the challenging experiences didn’t result in any long-term damage, 152 of those surveyed said that they felt they needed treatment for long-term psychological damage after the experience. Around 50 people reported that their bad trips ended up in physical violence or hospitalisation, and three people attempted suicide.

It’s pretty sobering data, especially when we consider that millions of people use psychedelics like psilocybin. Why are so many people having bad experiences when they take psychedelics? What should we be doing in the psychedelic community to acknowledge and use this information?

And are traumatic experiences actually more therapeutic than gentle ones? A good example of this is the ayahuasca experience – lasting hours and very rarely being described as gentle, people often say that the stark and traumatic introspection induced by ayahuasca is a crucial part of the healing process. Rachel Harris, psychologist and ayahuasca expert, proposes that the most therapeutic experiences are, in their nature, the most traumatic – as we have to confront our personal traumas in order to overcome them.

The survey mentioned above also supports the claim that “bad trips” can be healing – over 80% of the respondents said that their challenging experiences had benefitted them, even though nearly 40% said that the experience was “among the top five most challenging experiences of [my] lifetime.” However, the longer the experience lasted, the less personal benefit was gained. Is the “bad trip” something that can heal us, as long as it’s controlled? As the Zendo Project puts it, “A difficult psychedelic experience is not necessarily a bad one.”

Trial By Fire

I’d like to share a “bad trip” story that suggests that trauma can sometimes be healing.

I took a moderate dose of LSD, without adequate preparation or support, and found myself in a living nightmare. For an entire day, time lost all meaning, and I found myself floating in an ocean of eternal despair and pain. After 12 hours, my symptoms still weren’t dissipating – I was adrift in endlessly intense waves of fractals, every sense was totally out of my control, and I was struggling to retain my sanity. During the night I did not sleep at all, and witnessed a kaleidoscope of horrifying hallucinations – I saw my partner’s corpse lying next to me in the bed, bloated and decaying – I saw myself on my deathbed, unable to speak, life slipping away – I saw the eternal struggle of humanity, endless suffering, repeating itself indefinitely.

The next day my symptoms continued. Physically, my heart was racing. Time was reversing and fast-forwarding at random, I was not existing in one reality but in many. I was dying over and over again, watching the universe being reborn in every instant.

It took three days for the experience to fade. It took months to come to terms with, and I feel I will never be able to forget it. It was absolutely the most traumatic experience of my life.

But it left me with so many positives – I gained an entirely new perspective. I realised I was taking a lot for granted, and I could see very clearly the parts of my life that were making me unhappy. Since the experience, I’ve changed a lot about myself. I’ve started treating the people in my life with more compassion, and I think I’ve become a better person.

Were the benefits worth a distressing experience that will always be with me?

Could I have seen similar benefits, without so much trauma, if I had been in the kind of setting clinicians design to get the best out of psychedelics in scientific studies? Or was the trauma essential for my healing?

These questions about “bad trips” – and the possibilities of the preventative and recuperative measures one can take – need to be addressed by the psychedelic community if we want to be able to shape the future of psychedelic society.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick is a writer and biologist who has been working in the psychedelic community for several years.