What Is a Bad Trip?

Close up of man having a bad trip
A bad trip is often unpredictable and scary. PeopleImages / Getty Images

Question: What is a Bad Trip?

A group of my friends have been taking magic mushrooms over the weekend. My older brother told me not to take them, because I could have a bad trip, but another friend said people only have bad trips on acid, not magic mushrooms. What is a bad trip? Are there any safe drugs that don't cause a bad trip? And what should I do if I have a bad trip or one of my friends does?

Answer:

Sorry to break this to you, but your brother is right -- taking magic mushrooms can give you a bad trip, and there are no safe drugs that are guaranteed to give you a good time, all the time. All psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs can cause a bad trip, and other drugs, such as weed (marijuana) and cocaine, can also produce intense, distressing effects.

So, What is a Bad Trip?

A trip is a period of intoxication from a hallucinogenic drug, such as lysergic acid (LSD) or magic mushrooms (psilocybin). It is called a trip because your perceptions of the world change so dramatically, it feels as if you have taken a trip to a strange, new land. You hope that it will be a pleasant experience, and it might be, but it can quickly turn unpleasant, and sometimes, it is unpleasant from the beginning. This unpleasant experience of hallucinogen intoxication is known as a bad trip.

It is common for occasional unpleasant sensations, hallucinations, and thoughts to occur during a trip, and this does not necessarily mean you are having a bad trip.

These experiences can sometimes seem interesting or funny, rather than upsetting or frightening, and they can pass quite quickly. Having a bad trip can possibly be averted by the presence of a good friend, and by avoiding people or places that you usually find upsetting.

But again, there is no guarantee that this will keep a trip good -- one of the characteristics of hallucinogenic drugs is that they can cause you to see and think about the world in a very different way from how you usually do, so the previously trusted friend can quickly change and appear to be deceitful, mean-spirited, even evil.

One of the earliest documented bad trips was reported by Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD. He had started experiencing a bad trip, and in an attempt to soothe himself, requested some milk from his next-door neighbor, who appeared to have become "a malevolent, insidious witch."

Bad trips vary a great deal, from mild to intense, and can range from upsetting and overwhelming thoughts, to frightening hallucinations and delusions that can lead to accidents. Incidentally, accidents that occur under the influence of hallucinogens can also happen as the result of delusions that are not part of a bad trip -- people occasionally develop delusional beliefs that can lead them into danger, such as believing that they can fly or that they can safety climb to dangerous heights, or that running into traffic is not dangerous. These kinds of delusions are unusual, but serious injuries and deaths have happened in these situations, and it is impossible to predict how a hallucinogen will affect you.

A bad trip is a highly individual experience, but these are some aspects that are often described by people who have had a bad trip:

  • Time dilation -- This is the experience of time standing still. This can make it feel as if the other unpleasant aspects of the trip will never end.

    Tip: If someone is having a bad trip, it can be reassuring to tell them it won't go on forever, even if they feel as if it will.

  • Negative reinterpretations and paranoia -- Previously positive or neutral interpretations of life or relationships can suddenly become negative. Someone having a bad trip might feel that their life is worthless, that they or someone else they normally feel fine about is bad or acting against them, or that the whole world is bad or corrupt. These feelings can be all-consuming, and can cause the person having a bad trip to panic and try and get away from the people around them.

    Tip: Generally, it is unwise to allow someone who is having a bad trip to go off on their own, but be aware that acting confrontational or following them may increase their feelings of antagonism or paranoia. Try to have a trusted friend accompany them, saying they want to help them stay safe. However, a stranger who comes across as caring, genuine and calm may be more acceptable. Although involving police or medical personnel may be highly upsetting for someone having a bad trip, it is preferable to having them hurt themselves.

  • Hallucinations -- Most of the hallucinations that people have while tripping take the form of visual distortions -- such as walls "breathing," colored or geometric formations, or illusions. Sometimes these distortions are extremely vivid, such as a familiar person's face morphing into that of a demon. Occasionally, hallucinations take the form of seeing beings or objects that don't even exist.

    Tip: Usually, people who are tripping are aware that these hallucinations are the effects of a drug, and can be reassured that what they are seeing is part of the trip.

  • Mood swings -- Your mood can change dramatically when you are tripping, and feelings of sadness and despair can reach new depths, while anxiety can quickly develop into panic.

    Tip: Although acts of violence or self-harm are unusual while tripping, tell someone as soon as possible if you are having any thoughts about harming yourself or someone else -- you are not thinking clearly and indulging in these thoughts may have regrettable consequences. If someone else who is tripping seems at risk of harming themselves or someone else, get help immediately -- call 911 if necessary.

How to Stop a Bad Trip

Although it is not possible to "switch off" the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, a bad trip can be transformed into a more positive experience if the person having the trip is open to being supported or comforted. Often, lying down and listening to soothing music in the presence of a calm support person can help. The most intense period of the trip typically occurs from one hour to three hours after the drug is consumed, so time will usually ease the most intense aspects of the trip, but the effects will often continue for an additional six to ten hours after that, during which time the person will not be able to sleep.

If the person is open to receiving medical help, which they may be if they think the intensely unpleasant aspects of the trip could be alleviated, you could accompany them to the emergency room. There may be medical interventions that could help. However, never attempt to self-medicate by taking other drugs -- this is risky and could worsen the effects of the trip or cause drug interactions.

The best way to avoid a bad trip is to not take hallucinogenic drugs. While you may be intrigued by the idea of tripping, there is a reason that people don't usually take them for long -- sooner or later, they usually have a bad trip, and never want to repeat the experience. So your brother's advice is accurate -- ignore peer pressure, don't take magic mushrooms, and that way, they won't give you a bad trip.

Sources:

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM 5). American Psychiatric Association. 2013.

Fadiman, J. The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press. 2011.

Hayes, C. (Editor) Tripping: An Anthology of True-Life Psychedelic Adventures. New York: Penguin. 2000.

Hofmann, A. LSD My Problem Child. New York: St Martin's Press. 1983.

Stevens, J. Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream. London: Paladin. 1989.

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