From feeling like you’re on fire to being overwhelmed by crippling paranoia to aggressively questioning your life, a “bad trip” – that catchall term for the difficult experiences some psychedelic users report – can get pretty unforgettable.
But a small study suggests that psychedelic users who report having frightening bad trips also say that these BTs often gave them “deep existential and life-altering insights.”
The study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in January and updated this week revealed that psychedelic drug users tend to reframe their bad trips into positive experiences by using storytelling narratives to make sense of the challenging experiences.
The study conducted in-depth interviews with 50 Norwegians found through a closed Facebook group of psychedelic users. The studied group consisted of 42 men and eight women, most of whom had used LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, DMT or ayahuasca at least 10 to 50 times. Only two participants reported that they had never had a bad trip.
Researchers asked open-ended questions about their bad trip experiences, including how frightened they felt, whether it changed them, and how they felt the next day.
“Typically, bad trips started out just like any other trip, often with fascinating visions, and feelings of unity and well-being,” the study said. “Then something ‘challenging’ was experienced and the trip took a negative turn, leaving the user in distress, struggling for a solution to what was perceived as the problem.”
Users generally reported experiencing bad trips when they took very high doses of the substance. They went through a range of experiences that made them label their trips as BTs – from paranoia and panic attacks to confusion, dizziness, heart palpitations and terrifying visions.
“I was lying in a hammock in my sleeping bag and watching the zipper on the bag,” said a study participant named Helen, a teacher in her thirties identified only by her first name. “Then it started to look like DNA symbols. I thought, ‘Did I die now? Maybe I choked and now I'm dead. I've killed myself because I haven't had enough air to breathe’. Then I remember that I had to pee, or rather, I had to do something called ‘peeing’. However, I didn't know what that was or how to do it, so [my boyfriend] helped me, and I had to ask, like, how to do everything.”
Mark, another participant who is a student in his late twenties, said his worst trip was when he took a large dose of LSD and “experienced what it's like to go crazy.” Participants also reported total ego dissolution or ego death.
However, participants also insisted that their bad trips led to valuable learnings, and also taught them how to set boundaries to prevent such adverse reactions in the future.
“Taking mushrooms can be overwhelming,” said a study participant named Nicholas. “However, if you meditate a lot, then you'll learn the necessary skill to observe what’s happening, and not get stuck in it. That's the key to surviving intense psychedelic experiences, you just have to breathe, focus on the breath and observe everything without judgement.”
Researchers found that participants believed possessing the knowledge on how to avoid bad trips was part of symbolic boundary work that distinguished between drug culture insiders and outsiders. Some even rejected the use of the term “bad trip,” and argued that these challenging experiences reflected a psychedelic user’s lack of competence.
“When I woke up the day after, it was as if I looked at it as a positive experience,” a participant named Thomas said. “You just breathe out, and [think] ‘fuck, that was a crazy night’. It was special, but the effect is often like that for magic mushrooms and LSD. I mean, after every time I take these drugs, I always look at life more positively.”
Adrian, another participant, also reported feelings of positivity following the bad trip. “Even if it was intense and really scary for me, I really see the value of it,” he said.
Analysing the study results, researchers proposed that psychedelic users may find meaning in such bad trips through storytelling, which humans often use to make sense of the world. “Such narrative sense-making, or narrative work, facilitates the continued use of psychedelics, even after unpleasant experiences with the drugs,” the study concluded.
In 2017, a study published online in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that 84 percent of drug users surveyed said they had benefited from the psychological difficulties of a bad trip.
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