A bad trip is a scary prospect, seemingly waiting to ambush anyone who dares to engage with psychedelics. Knowing how to avoid a bad trip is an important skill that everyone should have ready. I’m going to explain it from the perspective of someone who engages with psilocybin on a regular basis for pain management.
A person using psychedelics for pain management does not have the luxury of risking a bad experience. If something happens that turns our medicine into something terrifying and to be avoided, we risk losing out on all the benefits. Maybe some individuals can benefit from a traumatic experience, but it just does not fit in a regimen that requires repeated sessions. The brave souls looking to explore some of the more challenging aspects of a psychedelic trip should reserve it for after they are comfortable directing the flow.
What Is A Bad Trip?
Like most experiences with psychedelics, the exact sensations involved in a “bad trip” are difficult to put into words. We can easily describe the resulting emotions, like panic, fear, dread, but the sensations that led us there are difficult to describe. Even the good aspects of a trip are exceedingly difficult to describe. You just know it when you feel it.
You know that saying about how life is like a box of chocolates? Well, a trip is more like a bag of pistachios. There will always be a couple in there that taste absolutely awful. Therefore, the trick is to spit them out and move on as smoothly as possible, not just sit there chewing on the gross ones.
I don’t know if they are burned, or rotten, but the taste is terrible. A bad trip can be described as biting into one of those nasty nuts and just continue chewing instead of spitting it out and moving on to the tasty ones. Tripping makes us so focused and myopic that you just sit there chewing allowing the disgusting, burned flavor to permeate your senses.
The reasonable thing to do would be to spit it out at the first sign that there is something wrong and move on to better ones. But this is a skill that is not easy to master and needs to be practiced.
Psychedelic culture often does not include recognizing the agency of the person experiencing the trip. Common wisdom in this culture states that we are just passengers along for the ride and that we are subject to the whims of “whatever the mushrooms have to tell us”. It is true that once a trip has begun you must ride it out until the end, but that does not mean that you do not have any say in the direction.
Most of the psychedelic community uses these substances for recreational, spiritual, or mental health purposes and they have no interest in directing the experience. The purists among them will say that attempting to direct it ruins the experience. It is my opinion that it is easy to have this attitude when you trip infrequently or have the luxury of walking away indefinitely after an unpleasant experience.
It is true that you can’t just “think your way out” of a bad trip. But there are tricks for physically jostling you out of a bad spot and sending you on a different path. Timing is important here, because the longer you spend mulling over a bad feeling, the more difficult it will be to clear your palate. At the first sign of uneasiness, you need to make a physical change like changing your position, standing up to stretch, or change what you are looking at. At our retreat, we also use VR headsets to provide an immediate change in environment and redirect your attention.
During a trip, you have the attention span of a gnat. There is no past, and there is no future, there is just the “right now”. After biting into a bad flavor, it’s like you get stuck there without realizing that you still have a whole bag of deliciousness to go through before the time is up.
The Importance Of Ritual
A psychedelic experience is incredibly destabilizing. It can make us feel completely unhinged, like we don’t recognize ourselves. We vacillate between the terrifying realization that nothing feels familiar anymore, and absolute joy and wonder. It’s a heady mix. Having a set routine and a controlled environment can counteract the destabilized feeling.
We have routines and rules that govern our daily activities. They provide us structure and familiarity daily, and they can bring much needed order to a seemingly chaotic experience. It can also help you delineate between the tripping experience and normalcy. It is important not to waste time and energy searching for normalcy where there is none to be had. On the other hand, it is also important to limit the chaos to a period set by certain boundaries and not allow it to affect us outside of these parameters.
It is a good idea to plan out the space where you plan to trip. Have everything prepared ahead of time, from the music to the snacks. Leaving this space and/or interacting with outside people can be stressful during this time. Also, make sure the trip sitter is experienced and familiar with rescue techniques. Under no circumstances should they be under the influence themselves.
Have A Mantra
You cannot bring too many things with you into the trip, just like it can be difficult to take concepts and feelings with you when you leave it. Turning useful, reassuring thoughts into a mantra can make it easier to keep hold of them during the journey. Wearing a physical representation of these concepts to remind yourself is a great tool. I personally always wear the same pair of fluffy pajamas and warm socks every time, and I never use these specific items outside of this context. When guiding, I often give the person a small token like a bracelet to remind them of their “mantras”. I tell them that as long as they have that item, it is normal to not feel normal, so don’t waste time and energy worrying about it.
If things feel too unfamiliar, and this starts to distress me I remind myself:
“Everything will just fall back to normal when this is over. I don’t have to know what normal is right now, but I will recognize it when I feel it.”
If I am distressed by my inability to grasp a concept or solve a problem:
“I don’t need to think of this now. I will think of it later when I am in my right mind.”
“I don’t want to waste time focusing on this. I want to move on to the good part.”
As a guide, I get to see many different reactions to a trip from various personalities. A mushroom trip generally lasts between 4-6 hours, and this can sound intimidating. It is just a matter of perspective whether you look at a six-hour trip and feel dread and apprehension, you look at it and think, “Only six hours? I better make the most of it.”
People often ask me at some point how much time is left in their session. They usually are not too happy with the answer, but probably not for the reasons you think. Upon hearing that there were only about two hours left, I have had several people just burst out in tears.
I ask them if they wanted a change, because that is how I ask if someone needs assistance without inserting any sort of connotation. The answers have been along the lines of:
“No, I never want this to change. I’m crying because it is so beautiful, and I only have two hours left.”
“I’m afraid I’ll never make it back to this moment and be this happy again.”
“Is It possible to feel just like this again? Has this ruined normal happiness for me?”
“I don’t want to lose this feeling. Will I be able to make it back to this?”
They are not easy questions. We can never return to an exact moment, and these feelings are fleeting moments in time. In my experience, the deep feelings we experience during a trip actually increase our capacity for emotion and widen our emotional range. Because we have felt great joy, we are now more capable of feeling great joy.