If there’s one thing that makes someone anxious about psychedelics, it’s the potential for a “bad trip.” To be fair, psychedelic substances can occasion powerful physical, cognitive, and emotional experiences—a fact that we shouldn’t forget. Psychedelics are not for everyone, and there’s no shame in saying “No, thank you.” But, challenging trips are a reality even for those filled with curiosity and open minds. There’s no telling when a negative experience will come about, but there are a few things that can make the psychedelic journey more challenging than it needs to be. Here are the five biggest reasons people have a “bad trip.”
Tripping with the Wrong People
As the late Anthony Bourdain says best in Netflix’s Have a Good Trip: “Don’t take LSD with assholes.” One could argue that this is sage advice for any mind-altering substance. The psychedelic experience is a deeply personal and largely internal one, but outside influences can have a significant impact on your trip. It’s important to trip around people who make you feel comfortable, safe, and supported—if you go into the experience feeling anxiety and insecurity due to the people you are around, those uncomfortable feelings may be amplified in the psychedelic state. Trust is an essential part of the psychedelic experience.
Tripping in the Wrong Setting
If you’ve been interested in psychedelics for some time, then you’ve likely heard the terms “set and setting” before. The phrase was coined by psychologist and psychedelic activists Timothy Leary in 1964. The term “set” refers to the mindset that you bring into the psychedelic experience. The term “setting” refers to the environment that surrounds you during your trip: the physical space that surrounds you, the people in that space, and how comfortable you are within that space.
The “ideal” setting for a psychedelic experience is a deeply personal one—spaces that may be comfortable to you may not be comfortable to your trip mates. In addition, what makes for a comfortable and appropriate set and setting varies by culture: entheogenic plants are reserved for ceremonial and community use in some cultures; some psychonauts prefer to partake in a retreat setting, others in a clinic, and others still in nature or in a comfortable home.
Regardless of where you feel most comfortable partaking, many consumers enjoy having access to safe and secure indoor and outdoor spaces, with comfortable places to rest and find either warmth or shade. Having easy access to water, comfortable clothing, snacks, and emergency services is always recommended.
Setting High Expectations (No Pun Intended)
In many ways, journeying with psychedelics and entheogenic plants is journeying into the unknown. You may have expectations for the experience, but there is no way of knowing how the psychedelic experience will unfold: It’s not necessarily something that you can wilfully control. If you go into a psychedelic state with rigid expectations, you may find yourself disappointed—or struggling against what the experience can provide. As Stanislav Grof, famed psychedelic researcher and author of LSD Psychotherapy, is often quoted:
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“LSD is a catalyst or amplifier of mental processes. If properly used it could become something like the microscope or telescope of psychiatry.”
All psychedelic substances inspire different experiences, yet Grof’s view of LSD can apply to other entheogens like psilocybin mushrooms and dimethyltryptamine (DMT): The substances will amplify what’s there. In unscientific terms, openness is more likely to beget openness, resistance to beget resistance. Athough, more likely doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed to have any particular experience.
For too many, preparation is an oft-overlooked part of the psychedelic experience. Preparation is a part of the set in set and setting. For example, taking the time to reflect and set an intention before the experience may help you enter the experience with a compassionate mindset. Why do you feel called to psychedelics? What questions are you hoping the experience will answer? Do you feel prepared to face a potentially challenging experience? Are you using psychedelics to escape something in your present reality?
If you identify with the latter question, Sara Gael, a harm reduction officer with Zendo Project, suggests “that is typically a good indication that you may want to focus on tending to your emotional and psychological health through therapy or other types of support before using psychedelics” —a statement she made in an earlier article on DoubleBlind.
Similarly, your lifestyle can influence your set and setting before the trip begins. Have you gotten several nights of good sleep before your trip? Do you feel well-nourished? Does your space feel clean, comfortable, and relaxed? All of these factors—and more, of course—can influence the state of your health and wellbeing before your journey. Taking the time to address some of your current lifestyle challenges before the start of your psychedelic exploration can aid in cultivating a contented set and setting for a trip.
Not Coming Back to Your Own Tools for Grounding
Those who struggle with anxiety may know this feeling all too well: panic. Feelings of fear, anxiety and discomfort are common during challenging trips—and the feelings can be intense. As part of the preparation for your trip, it’s helpful to make a list of “grounding tools” that you can come back to over the course of your experience; laying down, changing settings, putting on music or headphones, deep breathing, sipping tea or eating a snack, and engaging in a mental body scan may be helpful during this time. As can distracting yourself with a toy, plants, a coloring book, a piece of art, or another favorite fidget.
Fortunately, there’s also someone you can call: The Fireside Project is a psychedelic peer support hotline that can provide compassionate conversation if things get tough during a trip. Before you begin your journey, it may be helpful to download their app. If you feel that you are in an actual emergency, please, contact emergency services.
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