A hell of a lot of science goes on inside your brain when you take drugs, and as with all experiments, tweaking the variables can make a major difference to the results. So while some acid trips are all peace and love, others can escalate into all-out war with your own subconscious. No need to panic though, you’re just having a bad trip, and there’s a perfectly rational scientific explanation.
Is This Madness?
The idea that psychedelic drugs like LSD or psilocybin are psychotomimetic – meaning they induce madness – has long been abandoned by neuroscientists, although a recent study found that the acute effects of these substances do mirror some elements of psychosis, such as a disintegrating sense of self.
To get a better idea of how psychedelics warp the mind, researchers from Johns Hopkins University conducted a survey to try and categorize the symptoms of bad mushroom trips – or “challenging experiences”, as they are referred to by psychologists. Among the main characteristics of these haunting hallucinatory happenings were “panic or fear, grief, isolation, feeling as though one is dying, feeling insane, physiological distress, and paranoia.”
Lead author Frederick Barrett told IFLScience that when these sensations combine, “it can often feel like you’re dying or you’re disintegrating, or everything you know about yourself is going away and it’s never coming back.” The distress caused by this sense of having permanently lost one’s grip on reality can lead to desperate and potentially harmful behaviors, with a small number of suicides having resulted from these disturbing drug-induced distortions, although nothing like the figures perpetuated by the media.
While most people manage to get through their trip in one piece, particularly difficult experiences can have some lasting psychological effects. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, told IFLScience that “people can come out of a bad trip with some post-traumatic stress disorder specific to that experience. Others have sustained depression or demoralization as a result of bad trips.”
In Barrett’s survey, as many as 7.6 percent of those who had undergone a challenging psychedelic experience required treatment for enduring psychological distress. Yet Grob insists that the vast majority of people do recover, and that lasting psychosis following a bad trip is extremely rare, typically only occurring in those with a particular vulnerability, such as sufferers of schizophrenia.