When we talk about healing with psychedelics, inevitably the subject of “bad trips” comes up. Those of us of a certain age will remember the infamous After School Specials from our Just Say No school days of people jumping out windows while on LSD, going crazy on angel dust, slipping into psychosis, freaking out, and having a VERY BAD TIME. People using psychoactive substances were portrayed as dangerous, unhinged, suicidal, and even violent, all with the aim of instilling within us a deep fear of psychedelics and banging the drum of the drug war.
Today we’re going unpack the mystery around bad trips, and explore how difficult psychedelic journeys help us heal.
What is a Bad Trip?
The term bad trip is typically used to describe a hard, scary, negative, unpleasant, or even terrifying hallucinogenic experience. Instead of a fun time filled with mystical bliss and connectedness, things take a dark turn and we may feel overwhelmed, anxious, stuck in a negative downward spiral, disconnected from reality, afraid, sad, and confused. For most people, this experience may be one of the most intense and difficult things to ever happen to them, and many people choose not to explore healing with psychedelics out of fear of it going horribly wrong.
As holistic psychedelic practitioners, we define a “bad trip” as a psychedelic experience without intention. This could mean a lot of different things, including a lack of preparation, a wasted or mindless encounter, or just being reckless with yourself and not taking care around your meeting with the medicines. It is a great privilege to commune with Source using these beautiful tools. Psychedelics and plant medicines are the most powerful teachers and healers in the world, deserving of our respect, humbleness, and understanding that we are opening a portal to pure consciousness. We may not be ready to face the consequences of doing this in a casual, nonchalant, no big deal way. It’s a big deal. Always.
The Face of War by Salvador Dalí, 1940, via Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
What Factors May Contribute to a Difficult Psychedelic Journey?
The chances of having bad trip can be minimized by avoiding these common pitfalls:
- Using psychedelics to medicate, escape, or drown out your current reality
- Throwing psychedelics into the mix with alcohol or other drugs
- Being in an active addiction cycle
- Taking an unknown and untested synthetic substance
- Not being in an appropriate mindset with trusted people or guides
- Taking a very large dose without being fully aware or prepared for the intensity of that experience
- Not being supported by experienced guides who can care for you if things become difficult
- Being reckless, careless, or mindless
- Not being prepared, ready, or willing to do the work required to look at yourself
- Choosing to partake of psychedelics in an unsafe or unfamiliar setting
It is safest never to embark on a journey with any psychoactive substance if you have a heart or other medical condition, are taking MAOIs, antipsychotics, antidepressants, or other pharmaceuticals, or have a history of psychosis or diagnosed mental illness without the guidance of a professional therapist and clearance from your physician. We adamantly advise against mixing pharma and plant medicine, period. The best way to work with psychedelics is with experienced guides in intentional, sacred ceremony.
Despite horror stories about people having psychotic breaks or other mental health problems after taking psychedelics, two recent large-scale studies (which examine a similar set of US data) suggest people who have used psychedelics may be less likely to have serious mental health problems or be suicidal than those who have not.
–Bridget Huber for Michael Pollan, What do we know about the risks of psychedelics?
How to Practice Harm Reduction When Journeying Recreationally
The intrinsic value of difficult psychedelic journeys is widely accepted and understood in the plant medicine community as part of the deep work of healing with psychedelics. Because of this, we often refer to bad trips in terms of recreational journeys with psychoactive substances like LSD, magic mushrooms, marijuana, DMT, salvia, MDMA, or synthetic chemical analogs used in designer drugs like 2Cxx, MDxx, DMT variants, etc. The list of new psychoactive substances is astounding, and it’s no wonder that an underground drug market has led to dangerous and unsafe experiences for people who choose to use these substances thinking they are going to have a dandy time with some acid. (That’s not acid, bro.)
Designer synthetics often mimic the effects of more well known compounds (but not exactly), and are often completely unknown concoctions pretending to be something else, with often dangerous consequences. If you choose to use non-plant derived or synthetic psychedelics, practice harm reduction and always test before you ingest.
The chances of having a challenging or unmanageable experience are highest when a person is using psychedelics without intention or preparation, as an escape or distraction, or with the intent of doing self-harm or harming another person. That’s not to say that you can’t have a fun and easy recreational experience, but when you are repressing something, struggling with something, or in a place of fear, anxiety, or depression, it is much more likely that an experience will be perceived as negative or difficult. That’s why, even if your intention is to have fun and enjoy yourself, make sure that you create a safe, warm, loving container with good people you know and trust, and a complete plan for how to get support when and if you need it.
How Difficult Psychedelic Journeys Help Us Heal
The truth is, difficult psychedelic journeys absolutely happen, and they are often necessary and important. Psychoactive compounds, including entheogenic plants like psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca, often feel overwhelming, negative, or painful. The difference between a “bad trip” and a trying, yet valuable experience is how we choose to understand it, and where our intentions are. Doing everything “right” and still having a difficult journey is often what is required in order to grow, understand, release, and heal. Because psychedelics take us deep within ourselves, we often have to go through our own fears, worries, and trauma in order to reach the root of our pain.
When we work with psychedelics in an intentional way, difficult psychedelic journeys are understood to be part of the healing process. It is imperative to go deep, connect, release, feel, understand, process, and grow through painful ceremonies. That’s why we say there are no bad trips, because when we are healing and building a relationship with psychedelics as teachers and healers, every experience is unlocking a new awareness within us.
When we open the doors to the mystery, the medicines will show us what we need to heal, and it is often VERY UNCOMFORTABLE to look at, feel, and process what comes up.
Cultivating willingness to heal with psychedelics takes preparation and continued effort, but pays off with skills, awareness, and knowledge that can be used again and again. The good news is that finding the support you need is easier than ever, and there are lots of resources online and in person to help guide you through any psychedelic experience, no matter where you are on your healing path.
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