You may have heard that psychedelics are enjoying a recent surge in popularity. Scientists in the US and the UK have been using psilocybin—the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms—to treat addiction, depression, and existential anxiety. But not every trip is a pleasant experience, and researchers are suddenly interested in figuring out a predictive model for what happens when psychedelics take people to dark places.
In one recent study, a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine surveyed 1,993 people who'd had "challenging psychological experiences" (read: bad trips) while on shrooms. The idea was to help assess their safety for therapeutic use. In an online questionnaire that sounds a lot like Yelp for recreational drug users, the participants described their trips, rated their experiences, and discussed the negative psychological and emotional after-effects. After reviewing the data, the researchers were able to identify seven distinct qualities that bad trips share in common: fear, grief, physical distress, insanity, isolation, death, and paranoia. Then they studied how each factor individually correlated with the others. This resulted in a 26-item "Challenging Experience Questionnaire" to help people process their experience.
"Is there a risk profile for a bad trip?" asks Frederick Barrett, a co-author on the study. "If so, can we understand who might be at more of a risk for a bad trip?"
By drawing correlations between challenging experiences, Barrett hopes to help answer that question. Meanwhile, one of his colleagues, researcher Theresa Carbonaro, also dug into the responses about the perceived positive and negative effects of a bad trip in a parallel study. Together, their research offers a rare look into what can go wrong when you're using mushrooms—and why those low points could still be surprisingly good for you in the long run.
Even bad trips can be good for you.
Among the 1,993 study participants surveyed, 84 percent said they benefitted from the experience of a bad trip, despite reporting varying degrees of psychological distress.
You're in good company if you think it's the WORST.
Researchers asked the participants to rate their worst trip against the sum of their life's challenging experiences. About 28 percent said the trip was among the top five most challenging things they'd ever been through, and about 11 percent said it was the hardest thing they've ever endured.
Clearing your head might actually work.
Nearly half of participants said that thinking soothing thoughts helped them snap out of the bad trip, or at least mitigate the effects. Changing locations was also effective for about 40 percent of participants.
Booze or more drugs won't help.
Some participants said they tried drinking or taking other drugs to escape the throes of a bad trip. Both strategies worked for less than 10 percent of people surveyed.
Just because you're distressed or afraid doesn't mean you'll get paranoid.
Paranoia had the weakest correlation to nearly every other factor of a bad trip, disproving the stigma that psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms make you tweak out.
Feeling like you're going to die might weirdly be a good thing.
Contemplating when you'll part from this mortal coil and feeling paranoid ranked—surprisingly—as the lowest correlation among any two factors. And feelings of death, actually, were correlated to "spiritual significance," meaning that grappling with those feelings was considered most crucial to having a meaningful spiritual experience.
Being afraid is good too.
Researchers observed a positive relationship between the amount of fear an individual experienced and the degree to which they thought the experience ultimately increased their wellbeing.
So is going a little crazy.
People who felt high degrees of insanity during a bad trip also felt that it was highly meaningful to them in the wake of the experience.
Bad trips are mostly the same for men and women.
Women who felt a high degree of grief, isolation, paranoia, and most other negative qualities were also more likely than men to feel afraid (as in,there was a much higher correlation among those experiences for women). Otherwise, there was virtually no gendered difference reported.
People with psychiatric disorders have worse experiences.
The negative consequences of a bad trip are more intense for people who are dealing with mental conditions. Those participants also reported feeling especially high rates of isolation.