The “bad trip” is one of the most common caveats against psychedelics. Sometimes it’s mentioned as a well-intentioned warning for first-timers and a reminder for seasoned users, while others use it as a fear-mongering tool meant to discourage any and all psychedelic experiences.
But while psychedelic trips can be scary and challenging, the way people experience them usually depends on what they think psychedelics are for, and how they make sense of their trips when they’re done.
Some experts are now reframing the idea of bad psychedelic trips, choosing to see these challenging experiences as integral parts of the psychedelic experience, which can open doors to supposed therapeutic benefits. This way of thinking could allow people to welcome and learn from these “bad” experiences, rather than fear and reject them.
But what is a bad trip anyway?
The definition of a bad trip is highly subjective. Some people say their bad trips consist of familiar objects taking on grotesque forms, others feelings of panic and paranoia.
“It’s a little bit of a tricky question to answer because it’s very individual,” David Quintern, an activist for the safe use of psychedelics, told VICE.
Quintern works with Kiyumi, a legal psychedelic-assisted retreats company in the Netherlands, and SONAR Berlin, a harm reduction service for Berlin's nightlife scene. He also does psychological first-aid work at festivals around Germany.
Quintern said people can get stuck on certain thought loops while they’re on psychedelics. These thought loops can come in any form depending on the person and their specific contexts, but he said a “classic festival [psychological first-aid] example” is people who have just gotten out of a relationship repeatedly thinking: Why didn’t I do this, I shouldn’t have done that, etc.
Many bad trips are characterized by the inability to break away from similar thought loops. Other bad trips are defined by a frightening loss of self, or ego death.
To reframe the idea of bad trips, it’s useful to understand how psychedelics are used in different cultures.
According to Amit Elan, the director and founder of Kiyumi, some Indigenous people see their plant medicine ceremonies as a form of “energetic surgery” or “spiritual surgery.”
Elan has worked with psychedelics for over a decade and is trained in Compassionate Inquiry, a psychotherapeutic approach developed by the renowned addiction and trauma expert Gabor Maté. He has also worked with ayahuasqueros from the Shipibo, Huni Kuin, and Yawanawa Indigenous communities in the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazons.
“Indigenous people, that’s how they treat the psychedelics, the plants—they’re medicines, and they’re not just tools to fuck around with or play with in a non-safe setting, or a not-held setting, or not respecting and understanding the depth and the power and the potency of these tools,” Elan told VICE.
Part of preparing people for psychedelics is making sure they recognize that they’re going into the experience to do work on themselves, to understand deeper layers of their identities, behaviors, and experiences. In other words, psychedelic trips are opportunities to learn, and as Elan said, learning isn’t necessarily fun.
That means that it’s no good fearing bad trips and only ever wanting psychedelic experiences to be good and easy. Instead, taking psychedelics is about accepting the experience as it happens.
“The nature of a psychedelic experience is not necessarily meant to be just fun and beautiful and wonderful. It can be, and many times, it is… but it can also be extremely challenging,” said Elan.
“The nature of a psychedelic experience is not necessarily meant to be just fun and beautiful and wonderful. It can be, and many times, it is… but it can also be extremely challenging.”
According to him, facing trauma and other unconscious parts of one’s self during a psychedelic trip is where the growth lies. Many times, the more challenging the experience, the more people get out of it. The more, quicker, and deeper they learn.
Elan reiterated that people who take psychedelics without understanding what they’re getting themselves into can have bad and dangerous experiences. The more people suppress challenging emotions during a psychedelic trip, for example, the more challenging the trip can get. Sometimes, the idea that a person is having a bad trip can be the very thought loop that constitutes that bad trip.
But when done with the right understanding and support, even the most challenging psychedelic experiences can be given new meaning.
One study involving 50 people who have used psychedelics, most of whom between 10 to 50 times each, found that the act of talking about a bad trip can be a powerful way of making sense of it, thereby transforming it into a positive experience and putting it to good use.
Quintern said that it can be tempting for people to push challenging trips out of their memories as soon as they end. But facing what comes up during psychedelic trips after the trips are over is an important part of the psychedelic experience.
That practice is called integration. Think of it like the less popular but arguably more important bookend to setting an intention.
“Integration is the process through which you extract meaning and integrate, in the sense of applying, what this [psychedelic] experience means to you, to your everyday existence,” said Quintern.
Elan described it as the remembering, processing, and inquiring about one’s psychedelic experiences. According to him, it’s difficult to get much out of a psychedelic experience without some kind of integration practice. It’s in the integration, he said, that the results of each trip are imprinted.
One thing about psychedelic experiences is that they’re often quite ineffable, Quintern said, meaning it can be difficult to make sense of them, especially when they’re over. During the trip, people might think: Oh, it’s all so clear to me now. This is what I need to do. Only to find themselves after their trip thinking: I felt like I had it there… but what was it?
“[Integration is] so important because you can have these extremely meaningful and spectacular experiences with psychedelics, but if it’s not integrated thoroughly, often [the] meaning [and] the deep, touching experiences can get a little bit lost,” said Quintern.
“[Integration is] so important because you can have these extremely meaningful and spectacular experiences with psychedelics, but if it’s not integrated thoroughly, often [the] meaning [and] the deep, touching experiences can get a little bit lost.”
Integrating activities like journaling, making art or music, or talking with others about the experience help people situate their psychedelic experiences, apply them to their everyday life, and let them change their thought patterns and habits in order to really grow from the experiences.
This is especially important for challenging trips, said Quintern, because they may be pointing people to insights that would have otherwise remained unconscious or repressed, and therefore never to be learned from.
Elan pointed to a saying popularized by the writer Jack Kornfield: “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”
Many people who use psychedelics tend to chase after peak experiences, Elan said. They appreciate the feelings of bliss and connectedness often associated with psychedelic highs, but fail to do the work necessary to integrate whatever they learned on the trip into their daily lives.
Doing “the laundry” is ultimately what allows people to reframe psychedelic experiences so that no trip is ever really “bad.” They can still be difficult, but coupled with the understanding that psychedelics allow people to learn about themselves in ways that they might otherwise never be able to (and that learning is not necessarily easy), the practice of integrating each trip is an integral part of the psychedelic experience.
“Integration is one of the key, core things for the aftermath of a psychedelic experience in order to really have it [be] worth something,” said Elan.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the interviewees. VICE neither endorses nor encourages consumption of narcotics/psychotropic substances.
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