“Difficult is not the same as bad.”
This is one of the tenets behind the Zendo Project, a group that helps people through difficult trips. “Bad trips” can actually be amazing learning experiences, says Zendo Project Director of Harm Reduction Sara Gael, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.
A so-called bad trip can take many forms, the most well-known being scary hallucinations on psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms. But some people have scary experiences on cannabis as well, usually due to the lack of control they feel over themselves, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. In addition, stimulants like amphetamines and cocaine can sometimes cause agitation and aggression, and while MDMA makes you happy in positive environments, the heightened emotional state it produces can also make bad experiences worse. Then there’s the dreaded K-hole: the ketamine-induced state where you become paralyzed.
These issues should all be handled differently, with some (like the K-hole) sometimes requiring medical intervention, says Giordano. But there are a few common principles that you can apply to most of them.
1. Avoid being alone. Even if you’re an experienced drug user (but especially if you’re a beginner), you can’t predict when you’ll have a difficult trip. So, enlist a trip sitter in advance. If you do end up alone, get someone you trust to come help you. When left unattended, people having difficult trips may do potentially dangerous things to find relief, and displays of irrational behavior and psychologically damaging thought patterns are not uncommon on a "bad trip."
2. Think positive. It’s largely your mind that created the difficult trip, so sometimes your mind can also turn it around, says Giordano. Try to think about a happy memory, a loved one, a joke, a pet or whatever brings a smile to your face. “Remind yourself that the experience will pass and that many others have had challenging experiences as well,” says Gael. “You are not alone.”
3. Get an object that makes you happy. Some people will bring stuffed animals, photographs of happy memories or other things that make them feel happy with them before tripping. This can spark happy feelings and memories when you’re too immersed in your trip to conjure them up yourself, says Giordano.
4. Create a mantra. Another way to get yourself to think positive is to create a mantra beforehand, says Giordano. It can be something as simple as “I feel good” or “I’m safe” or “I’m at home” to just remind you that what you’re experiencing is inside your head and temporary.
5. Explore those scary feelings if you can. The Zendo Project takes a slightly different approach to bad trips, encouraging people to reach deeper into their feelings and explore their sources. This may be difficult or uncomfortable if you’re by yourself or just with friends, says Giordano, but being with a professional—like a Zendo Project volunteer, a shaman (in the case of ayahuasca) or a knowledgeable trip sitter—these "bad trips" can be incredibly constructive. Gael recommends finding someone who preferably isn't under the influence (or in the midst of a bad trip themselves), going somewhere out of the commotion, getting as physically comfortable as you can, really feeling your feelings and sharing them. You’ll get more out of it if you continue talking about these emotions or journaling about them the next day.
Unfortunately, in our drug-negative culture, we often miss the gifts hidden within difficult trips. “If we don’t have reference points for why challenges emerge and that this can be a normal part of the process, we will continue to deal with every difficult experience as though it is an accident, a mistake or something to avoid,” says Gael. “This invalidates centuries of wisdom and knowledge about how psychedelics work…. Difficult is not the same as bad.”