The fear began creeping in when I realized that I could no longer remember who I was.
I knew that I was on a beach beneath the starry sky, but concrete information like my name, past, where I was, or how I’d gotten there were all frightfully elusive. I knew that I probably should recall my identity, but try as I might, I could not. As my mind spun and my heart galloped, the fear continued to bloom.
And then a thought arose: this feels familiar. There was a sensation coursing through me that I couldn’t quite distinguish, but I’d experienced it before. Wait… I got it…
I was “bad tripping” on LSD.
With this awareness came the understanding that, with time, my identity would ebb back in like the tide. No need to freak out. It was just a matter of time. At that moment I could be content to merely sit and consider the stars. The panic subsided. Bad trip averted, but only just.
Psychedelics aren’t new. In fact, that’s an understatement, as psychedelics have been an integral aspect of human society for thousands of years. Come to think of it, what is rather new is their repression, which was virtually unheard of until LSD was banned in the United States back in 1967.
This prohibition put an effective end to mainstream research on substances like LSD, psilocybin (the delightful compound in so-called “magic mushrooms”), and mescaline for several decades, but the movement continued to bubble underground. Recently however, psychedelics — also widely known as “entheogens”— are enjoying a major comeback.
The FDA has declared that psilocybin and MDMA have the potential to be game-changing therapy tools. Cities and states have been decriminalizing the drugs left and right. Psychedelic therapy clinics are popping up across the country and around the globe, and there are even psychedelic stocks being traded on the market.
According to Dr. Julie Holland, a worldwide expert on street drugs and member of the Advisory Board at a psychedelic support organization called the Fireside Project, “Clinical research is underway to see if psilocybin mushrooms may help to treat depression or the existential anxiety that often accompanies a terminal illness (at Johns Hopkins), or to treat addiction to alcohol (at NYU), cigarettes (Hopkins), or cocaine (in Alabama).
MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is being studied for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (multi-center Phase IIII trials), and psilocybin is being studied in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at Yale.”
Suffice to say that with their potentially wide-ranging benefits, psychedelics might be one of the cures to what ails you.
That being said, it’s possible for the darkness to eclipse your trip regardless of your intentions. There’s only so much you can do to tame a tiger, and these substances have vivid stripes.
With this in mind, the Fireside Project has launched a new app to provide peer-to-peer support for psychonauts undergoing the rigors of a rough trip.
At the press of a button, the app connects you with an “ambassador” to walk you through the situation. That means different things for different people, but it can include anything from lending a sympathetic ear, to talking through the problem, to making helpful suggestions, to simply reminding you that the experience is temporary and that you will in fact come down.
And the support app is not solely for those having bad trips. It can also be used by people having a positive trip who want to talk about their experience with someone.
The general idea about a bad trip is that using psychedelics will cause you lose your mind and probably die. How dramatic.
“Most of the risks with psychedelics have to do with behavioral toxicity, not physical toxicity,” explains Holland. “If someone isn’t properly prepared, educated, and supervised, the risks increase.”
But the truth is, while bad trips most certainly can happen, their actual results are almost always much less dire.
What an actual “bad trip” can look like
In the real, non-hand-wringing world, bad trips go something like this:
- Maybe you take a little too much of substance X, or you do it under circumstances that are less than ideal (more on that later).
- As the effects take hold, they feel overwhelming and you can’t seem to get a grip on your thoughts.
- Your mind turns to dark, perhaps even scary places — traumas from the past, worries about the future, problems in your present — and you find yourself hyper fixated on them.
- You spend the next 6 hours wrapped in a blanket with the lights off, contemplating your biggest fears.
While this can indeed be taxing, it’s almost never dangerous. And the fact is that the majority of people who experience bad trips report that they turned out to be beneficial. A third of respondents described their trip down the dark rabbit hole as the most meaningful experience of their lives.
“It may be unpleasant or uncomfortable, but sometimes, deep, significant behavioral changes still occur,” says Holland. “Sometimes facing your fears allows you to work through them better than running away from them.”
Bad trips are often nothing more than you facing something you probably needed to face in the first place. It’s your opportunity to look at and perhaps address repressed traumas or even aspirations.
A trip doesn’t have to stumble its way into the “bad” zone to impart psychedelic wisdom. Sometimes you enjoy the same enlightening conclusions via a truly blissful experience.
Your best bet is to lessen the potential for a bad trip altogether by considering your “set and setting” beforehand. In a nutshell, this means taking steps to provide yourself with the appropriate surroundings (enjoyable companions, beautiful scenery, safety, etc.) and a prepared mindset (lack of immediate distress, healthily nourished, awareness of the rigors of the psychedelic state, and so on).
The Fireside Project app is the first of its kind, and we’ll likely see similar tools emerge as the psychedelic space develops. But what if you’re experiencing the fear and you don’t have your phone handy? Here are a few tips for soothing or even ending a bad trip:
Remind yourself that it will end. One of the most common causes of a bad trip involves a fear that it will never end. It will. Remind yourself that you’ve taken a powerful substance and that while it feels overwhelming at the moment, it will start to wane, and within a few hours things will feel much more normal.
Change your setting. It might be that all you need is a quick change of scenery. That might mean going for a walk or even just moving to a different room.
Have some food or water. It could be that you’re simply hungry or dehydrated, or you just need the distraction provided by food. You’d be amazed at how much the simple process of peeling an orange can do for your situation.
Art it up. This can mean many things: Put on some music (or change what you’re listening to). Watch a movie. Play an instrument. Draw or paint. Sing. It’s almost impossible to have a bad trip when you’re singing.
Your best chance of enjoying a positive psychedelic trip is achieved through preparation — creating the right set and setting. But if the grimness does set in, just remember that it’s not the end of the world.
The techniques above can work wonders for alleviating the situation, and tools like the Fireside Project app can provide much-needed support.
If all else fails, keep in mind that your so-called “bad trip” might be exactly what you needed. It’s quite possible that you’ll emerge from your psychedelic adventure with a new perspective that will help you moving forward.
Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Daily Beast, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, Men’s Health, Thrillist, Vice, and more. You can follow his travels and connect with him via Instagram or Twitter.