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.
Falling into the darker regions of one’s chemically disfigured imagination might not sound like much fun, but it does have its advantages. Counterintuitive though it may seem, 84 percent of participants in the Johns Hopkins bad trips survey said they actually benefited from the experience.
“The reason we try to call these challenging experiences rather than bad trips is that bad trip makes it sound like it’s all bad,” says Barrett. “But challenging experiences often have value, and can lead to change.”
Numerous studies have pointed to the potential of drugs like LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA to facilitate psychotherapy. According to Barrett, they do so by “giving you an opportunity to confront something that you’ve been trying to avoid, but in confronting it you work through it and that helps you to heal.”
What Causes A Bad Trip?
Since the 1960s, the term “set and setting” has been recognized as the golden rule for trip control. In this instance, setting refers to the actual environment in which a drug is taken, including all sensory and social stimuli, while set indicates a user’s mindset and emotional state at the time of ingesting a drug.
This includes elements such as mood and personality, and while no one can predict with any real accuracy whether a person is likely to have a good or bad trip, it is possible to make an educated guess based on certain aspects of their character.
A recent study found that people with higher levels of neuroticism - including anxiety, self-consiousness, and loneliness - tend to have more severe bad trips. According to Barrett, this may be attributable to the way in which psychedelic drugs produce a sense of “ego-dissolution”, or loss of self.
“If you’re unable to surrender yourself to that experience and let go of yourself for a couple of minutes then it’s going to be very challenging because you can’t control the experience in that way,” he explains.
“And people who are higher in neuroticism are more prone to react negatively to emotional stressors and less likely to want to yield control of things because of perceptions of possible harm that can come from that.”
On the flip side of this, research has revealed that people who score highly for a personality trait known as absorption tend to undergo more pleasant and mystical-like experiences when on psychedelics.
Absorption refers to a tendency to become completely engrossed in experiences, whether reading a book, watching a movie, or tripping on acid. “To become fully absorbed in something outside of yourself you have to let yourself fall back a little bit. You have to make space for that other thing,” says Barrett. “So maybe people who are high in absorption are a little more labile in how strongly they hold onto their concept of self.”
Interestingly, one study even found that certain people may be genetically predisposed to having good trips, thanks to a quirk in the gene that codes for the serotonin 5-HT2a receptor, to which most psychedelic drugs bind in the brain.
Results showed that people with high levels of absorption were more likely to have a particular polymorphism – or form – of the gene that codes for this receptor, enhancing its ability to interact with LSD and other psychedelics.
How Do You Deal With A Bad Trip?
Once a drug has started to take effect, there’s no going back, and all you can really do is wait until it wears off. However, if the trip starts to go a bit south, there are a few things you can do to rescue it.
One thing you shouldn’t do, however, is take an anti-psychotic to try and bring yourself back to normality. According to Grob, this tends to “compound problems afterwards with depression and demoralization, as people kind of get stuck with the experience and they can’t work their way through it.”
Instead, you’re better off sticking to non-pharmacological interventions. The Zendo Project is a harm reduction initiative that offers guidance to people undergoing difficult psychedelic experiences at music festivals and other events. Project director Sara Gael told IFLScience that “rather than try and talk people down, we help them turn towards their experience and create a space where it’s safe for them to work through that experience.”
Zendo’s representatives use a range of techniques to help guide people through their trips. “One of the common phrases that we use is ‘what we resist persists’, so if you are feeling some difficulty and you resist it, then it’s going to get worse and you’re going to end up spiraling,” says Gael.
Mirroring Barrett’s rationality, Gael insists that a difficult trip can become a beneficial experience for those who are able to simply accept whatever their mind happens to show them while under the effects of their chosen drug.
And while this may seem like a novel concept that psychologists are only just getting to grips with, it has provided the philosophical backbone for countless indigenous communities worldwide that use hallucinogenic substances for spiritual and healing purposes.
So if you ever find yourself being trolled by the uglier inhabitants of your subconscious, just relax and let go – you may even benefit from it.