The Psychedelic Nightmare
A bad trip is an unpleasant experience while under the influence of a psychedelic. It can feel like a waking nightmare. These experiences are not only uncomfortable, but traumatizing and triggering, intensified by the longevity and intensity of the psychedelic consumed.
Even when taking steps to avoid bad trips, they still occur regardless of the precautions taken or the consumer’s previous experience with the drug. Once in a bad trip, time can feel distorted, paranoia seeps in, and hallucinations appear — no bad trip is the same.
It can feel overwhelming and isolating. Thankfully, there are steps and resources to guide any individual through their own bad trip, and ways to support a friend in the midst of one. I sat down with Joe Nathan, a mental health professional, and trauma-focused psychotherapist, to discuss just what to do when this kind of nightmare occurs.
Why Does a Bad Trip Happen?
Set and setting are important factors in a psychedelic journey. Consuming psychedelics in a space where the consumer feels unsafe, confined, or unsure of their surroundings, these feelings of insecurity amplify and a bad trip ensues.
“When [psychedelics are] taken in less than ideal situations, it is simple common sense to be aware of what to do when a friend needs help staying with his experience or, in rare cases, being helped out of it,” Nathan says, “The more you understand what can go wrong and how it can be managed, the less you will ever need to panic.”
Any internal feelings of anxiety, doubt, and pain intensify when any psychedelic is consumed. This is why it is important to approach these drugs with caution and avoid them during times of crisis, stress, or depression.
Psychedelics like ayahuasca “put people in touch with their repressed pain and trauma,” writes Dr. Gabor Maté, who warns that taking “too much, too soon, too fast,” can awaken deeply repressed feelings and traumas.
What Does A Bad Trip Look Like?
Nathan tells me what to look for if my friend is experiencing a difficult trip. “The key signs would involve moving restlessly around the room, becoming increasingly anxious & agitated, asking a lot of questions during the ascent and peak stage of the experience caused by anxiety, trying to leave the space, vomiting, being scared,” he lists.
For my friend, their bad trip can include:
- Time Dilation
- Sadness and Despair
- Feeling Trapped or Claustrophobic
- Memory Loss
- Visual Distortions
- Mood Swings
These symptoms can last for only moments, or the entire six to twelve hour trip duration. They range from mild, intense, independent of one another, or combined to create particularly difficult mental states.
Some users believe that these negative trips help guide them to a greater sense of clarity in life. Others, however, report regret and disappointment afterward, and never consume psychedelics again.
These journeys are not to be taken lightly. Luckily, there are resources and volunteers to reach out to when a bad trip inevitably occurs.
The Zendo Project
The Zendo Project is a wonderful online resource with aides and suggestions when supporting a bad trip. Sponsored by MAPS, The Zendo Project acts as a volunteer program to promote harm reduction at festivals and reduce unnecessary psychiatric arrests and hospitalizations.
The Zendo Project promotes creating a safe space, validating the individual’s experience. They invite them to embrace their negative emotions and listen to their inner voice. Like Dr. Maté, who doesn’t believe in “bad trips”, The Zendo Project sees these negative emotions as an opportunity for growth.
Operating 24/7, TripSit provides support and advice before, during, and after a psychedelic trip. TripSit understands there is a community of drug users who need nonjudgemental guidance as they partake in psychedelics, as the stigma around drug use may make consumers hesitant to reach out.
They acknowledge they are not trained medical professionals, but instead a group of peers to confide in, providing open discussion.
Your Local Hospital
Although there are very few instances which result in the need for the Emergency Room during a psychedelic trip, the hospital is filled with professionals who are trained in toxicity treatment and deescalation. These nurses and clinicians will have the proper resources to talk down a patient in a state of psychosis.
Be a Calming Presence
What I can do, Joe Nathan tells me, is “talk through and not talk down.”
“Generally, anxiety is not a ‘bad’ experience,” he says, agreeing that these difficult emotions teach us powerful truths about our inner psyche. “Mindfully and gently shift the focus from what they are anxious about to something general you know they would enjoy talking about.” Nathan recommends sitting with the friend, touching their hand or hugging them if it isn’t violating their space. Generally, listening to their needs while guiding them back to a calm state is the key.
A bad trip, while challenging, can be a life changing opportunity for growth, but it can also be damaging. Knowing the set and setting, and with a resourceful and prepared trip sitter, a “bad trip” will likely subdue, but as always it is important to acknowledge that psychedelics are not for everyone. In many cases, avoiding psychedelics altogether is the safest option.
It is also important to keep in mind that a psychedelic trip is temporary. With a safe space and calming presence, a bad trip passes as the drug makes its way through the body. The resources listed above will help throughout the process, as will calming music and videos and a safe, comfortable environment.
Carissa is a writer, painter, and actor in Toronto, Ontario. An alumnus of both McMaster University and Centennial College, she channels her creativity into everything she writes with an active intention to connect people through her writing.