I know that bad trips exist, because I’ve had one.
I know that toxic positivity exists, because I’ve been gaslit by it.
Here’s what I wish other people understood:
First, let’s define (and redefine) the term “bad trip,” because the phrase has become too polarized for anyone to think straight when they hear it. I think it’s because “bad trip” is an umbrella term for two very different experiences: challenging journeys and traumatic ones.
Challenging journeys are uncomfortable. They hurt like hell. They can be terrifying. They may send us to the underworld, catapult us to hell realms, or shove us way beyond our comfort zones. But when we work through those experiences—focusing on working with the material instead of running away from it—deep growth, learning, and healing happen. We emerge—hours, days, or weeks later—raw yet triumphant, with vulnerability and solace.
When a person feels unsafe during a challenging trip, however, their journey runs the risk of becoming traumatic.
Traumatic journeys are a serious injury to the nervous system and psyche. The word “trauma” gets thrown around a lot nowadays, so it’s important that we remember what the word really means. Trauma does not mean feeling offended or rattled. Trauma does not refer to a distressing event, but rather to the nervous system’s response to the experience. Trauma imprints on a person’s subconscious in a lasting way. Trauma can harm a person’s sense of Self, their sense of safety, their ability to navigate relationships, and their ability to regulate their emotions. Trauma, in other words, is a psychological and neurological injury that has negative ripple effects. Like everything in life, trauma can ironically come with a gift, some silver lining or shred of gold. And yet, traumatic trips are distinctly different from challenging ones, to the detriment of our wellbeing. When I talk about “bad trips,” I specifically mean traumatic psychedelic experiences.
Preventing and Transforming Traumatic Trips
Thankfully, there are things we can do to prevent traumatic trips. We also have tools for transforming challenging journeys so that they are more likely to become healing opportunities and less likely to traumatize a person.
Intention: The reason for taking the psychedelic substance. If somebody’s intention is to have fun with their friends at a festival, for example, they may feel very perturbed when the curtain of the subconscious is pulled back and their psyche accesses challenging material (such as a rape, assault, or other intense thing the person has survived).
Set: Set refers to the person’s headspace. Are they feeling agitated when they take the substance? Are they scared? Are they taking the drug because they feel peer pressure to do so? Are they drunk or high? Research suggests that individuals with high levels of neuroticism are more likely to experience a bad trip.
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Setting: Chaotic, noisy environments that require filtering information, focusing externally, or otherwise staying on guard come with high traumatic trip potential. I’ve had many clients experience challenging and traumatic trips at raves and festivals.
Company: Tripping with people you don’t trust, or that you’re trying to impress, comes with the risk of a hard or traumatic trip. For example, one of my clients took LSD with a group of guys. During her trip she sensed that her “friends” were trying to coerce her into sex. Narcissistic or under-trained “shamans” and facilitators can also cause harm.
Substance: The drug itself matters. Pressed pills are more likely to be adulterated with other, more harmful drugs than pure preparations. Professionally, I have seen ayahuasca, LSD, and 5-MeO-DMT cause more traumatic trips than psilocybin or MDMA.
Orientation to the Drug: Does the person know more or less what to expect from the substance? I always counsel my clients on what to expect from the experience and how to navigate the trip. This includes educating them on longtime psychedelic researcher Bill Richards’ “flight instructions.” I emphasize the importance of turning and facing the terrifying material that may arise during the journey, rather than trying to escape it. I also make sure the client understands the logistics of the substance, like how long the journey may last. Eight hours into an LSD trip, many have panicked, worrying that they broke their brain. Knowing that an LSD trip can last up to 14 hours, would have saved them a lot of distress.
Dose: Higher doses of substances typically require more orientation on how to trip, as they dig deeper into the psyche and our physical energetic holding patterns. They are also more likely to turn sour if the tripper cannot let go and surrender. The common thread here has to do with surrender. To get the most out of a psychedelic experience, we need to be willing to surrender. If we’re in a situation in which we feel that it is unsafe or unwise to surrender, we risk having a challenging trip.
Bad Trips May Still Happen Despite Set and Setting
The majority of traumatic trips occur in situations in which one or more of the above factors is sub-optimal. That being said, I personally endured a traumatic trip in which all of the above were quite dialed in. The night of my traumatic trip was the third of a three-night ayahuasca ceremony. I liked the other people in the group. I trusted the facilitators and their skills. The medicine was pure. The environment was soothing and well contained, with beautiful music. During the first half of the ceremony, I released a huge grudge I’d been holding onto for years. I enjoyed feeling more space and lightness in my body as a result.
After I drank my second dose of the brew, however, I took a hard nosedive. It’s difficult to put into words what happened, but I was thrust into an experience that was too much, too rough, too fast, and too hard for my nervous system. I felt like my brain was being raped, and like I would psychologically snap (in more of a “breakdown” than “break though” way). It all felt very, very out of control and unsafe.
The medicine carriers helped me out of the ceremony space and tried to soothe me outside. Somebody stayed with me at all times until I vomited up the salt water they gave me to drink and limped back into the ceremony space to whimper under my blanket. It took me eight years to fully recover.
Healing After a Traumatic Trip
If you have survived a traumatic trip, here are some tools that may help:
- Don’t bother trying to convince other people that you had a traumatic trip. Ignore the “no such thing as bad trips!” gaslighters and the “we all get the trip we need” bypassers. Find people who believe you and want to support you. Your job right now is not to debate the issue of bad trips: your job is to get your nervous system feeling as safe as possible so that it can heal.
- Nurture yourself. Treat yourself as you would if you had just endured a terrifying car accident, a rape, the death of a loved one, or any other potentially devastating experience that can injure the psyche, body, or spirit. Rest. Take time off if you can. Meditate. Pray. Keep your blood sugar balanced with regular, balanced meals. Exercise. Get therapy, energy work, and/or bodywork. Ask for help. Be good to yourself. I personally found warm epsom salt baths helpful, as I felt contained within the bathtub and embraced by the warm water. Craniosacral therapy was also a gentle-yet-effective modality for me.
- Even if the traumatic trip was a result of poor planning, improper set and setting, or other “user error,” be kind to yourself.
- Ditch the victim mentality. Shit happens. It isn’t always personal.
- There may be a huge blessing in having endured this trauma, but you don’t need to hold your feet to the fire until you find it. Just heal. If the blessings are there, they will rise to the surface in due time. Ignore the bubble of toxic positivity that often comes with pseudo-spiritual communities and frequent-flier scenes. You can decide for yourself, later, if everything is indeed connected or if it’s all truly a blessing.
- You will know when and if it’s time to take psychedelics again. Don’t buckle to peer pressure. Trust yourself. Personally, going back to ceremony too soon after my traumatic experience did me more harm than good: I took the medicine while feeling nervous, and was thrust into several challenging, dysphoric trips that frankly gave me garbage data. Eight years later, however, I felt the arc was finally completed during a peyote ceremony.
Trauma exists on this wild planet, even when everyone does their best. Be gentle with yourself, and with one another.
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