In 1968, Thomas Ungerleider and Duke Fisher, two psychiatrists from UCLA, traveled to the suburbs of Los Angeles to witness the rituals of an LSD cult.Two years earlier, Ungerleider and Fisher had authored "The Dangers of LSD," a paper that documented the rising incidence of admissions to the UCLA psychiatric ward by people reporting adverse effects while tripping on lysergic acid diethylamide. The doctors had recently given a lecture on the subject of what's come to be known as the "bad trip," a catchall term for the difficult experiences some psychedelic users report, from mild anxiety to full blown psychosis and persistent delusions.
By observing and interviewing participants in these "love sessions," the researchers learned that many of the Disciples were ex-cons and drug addicts who were using LSD to facilitate their recovery. Many of these individuals reported to have found God through the ritual use of LSD. Importantly, not one of the Disciples reported having a bad trip while on acid in the group.
…about a dozen of the group living in a large house on spacious grounds. They were literally tilling the soil and had decorated the house in psychedelic fashion. There were pictures of Buddha and Jesus on the walls. Every Wednesday night the group gathered to have a non-LSD religious experience consisting of prayer and meditation. The drug-taking sessions were scheduled for the weekends.
To answer this question, the researchers ran a study that compared 25 Disciples with 25 patients who had been hospitalized following adverse reactions to LSD, including "hallucinations…anxiety to the point of panic…depression, often with suicidal thoughts or attempts, and…confusion." In 1968, the researchers published their results in the Journal of American Psychiatry in the first scientific attempt to identify the causes of negative psychedelic experiences.As the researchers found, there were no significant differences between the two groups in terms of race, sex, age, education, or "early parental deprivation." Forty-four percent of the inpatients (compared with only 24 percent of the Disciples) had previous psychiatric history, but this also wasn't a guarantor of a difficult psychedelic experience. None of those in the religious group with previous psychiatric history had ever encountered difficulty from taking LSD."In all of our comparisons there were no historical elements or current clinical aspects that were unique to either group," the authors concluded. Interestingly, Ungerleider and Fisher were some of the first to predict that LSD could interact with "schizoid trends," a hypothesis that would be bolstered by later research. Even so, the authors realized that "such a complex interaction—which is difficult to anticipate even with the best of clinical and test data—would predict that adverse LSD reactions will be with us for some time to come."
"Such a complex interaction—which is difficult to anticipate even with the best of clinical and test data—would predict that adverse LSD reactions will be with us for some time to come."
Although this set-and-setting wisdom has deep roots in the psychonaut community, a formalized set of standards for psychedelic harm reduction didn't really begin emerging until the 1970s. One of the first papers published on the subject appeared in the July 1970 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, which described the "management of 'bad trips' in an evolving drug scene."Here the authors argue for "rational therapy" to protect patients from dangerous behavior while under the influence of psychedelics. The case is made for talking down a patient who is having a hard time rather than trying to directly administer tranquilizers to restore the individual's ego, a progressive stance at a time when many psychiatrists were quick to prescribe downers to bring a bad trip to an end.
More pro trip tips: In the above lecture clip, the late ethnobotanist, psychonaut, and advocate for responsible psychedelic drug use, Terence McKenna, advises singing as a way of fending off the onset of a potentially bad psychedelic experience. That, and cooling the nerves by taking a hit or two off a pre-rolled cannabis joint.
According to May, the Hopkins bad trip study found that previous psychedelic experience wasn't correlated to the likelihood that someone would have a bad trip. However, younger ages correlated to more difficult experiences with psilocybin. Still, May noted that this observation "needs to be tempered with the idea that the more difficult the experience, the more positive the attribution." In other words, even if someone had a rough time, this was retroactively interpreted as an opportunity to grow as a person.
"I think challenging experiences occur somewhat randomly."
According to Gorman, the Center for Optimal Living hasn't done any studies with its visitors yet, but he said the program is interested in pursuing empirical research to better understand its clients and the issues they're facing with psychedelics."Evidence-based approaches are a priority for us and we value research," Gorman told me via email. "We are beginning to look into studies, but we are approaching data gathering carefully as we don't want to jump into a project that could feel intrusive or interfere with the confidentiality of our clients."Bad trips are a touchy subject, not only because of the lingering social taboo surrounding psychedelic drug use, but also due to the pervasive idea that a bad trip is the manifestation of deep-seated psychological trauma working its way to the surface. While such thinking is largely rooted in the mid-century psychoanalysis boom, the intuition is also beginning to be borne out in clinical research trials that use psychedelics to facilitate therapy. One of the most promising uses of psychedelics in this sense has been the MAPS trials, which are administering MDMA to veterans with post-traumatic stress. Researchers at Hopkins have also found psilocybin to be particularly effective in assuaging fears of death in terminally-ill patients.In any case, these trials are lending empirical evidence to the shamanic notion that what many think of as a "bad trip" on psychedelics isn't actually bad at all.Psychedelic experiences like ego dissolution, which can undoubtedly be terrifying for those not prepared for it, have proven to be some of the most potent avenues for addressing traumatic life events. This is why psychonauts and psychedelic researchers like Darrick May have largely abandoned the "bad trip" terminology, preferring instead to call these "difficult" or "challenging" experiences. For as multiple Hopkins psilocybin studies and countless online testimonies go to show, it is often the most harrowing psychedelic experiences that result in the largest benefit to the user.Of course, psychedelic use isn't for everyone. No serious contemporary researchers are taking the line of the Disciple who argued in 1968 that everyone should have access to unlimited LSD. More work needs to be done on the neurological mechanisms of psychedelic substances in order to understand their interactions with pre-existing mental conditions like schizophrenia, in order to reduce the likelihood of lasting mental damage from what is otherwise a promising suite of therapeutic substances. Others are attempting to get to the neurological root of hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, otherwise known as flashbacks, which are far from accepted as a separate mental condition, but nevertheless have been widely reported for decades.In the meantime, intrepid psychedelic researchers are painstakingly putting together psychedelic support manuals, clinical best practices for other researchers, and volunteering their time in festival harm reduction tents in an effort to alleviate the worst effects of a difficult experience. Will these adverse psychedelic reactions be with us for some time to come? Most likely. But that doesn't mean a trip has to be bad.*Not his real name.
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