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What Is a Bad Trip?

Psychedelic drugs can induce fear or distress

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

A trip is a period of intoxication from a hallucinogenic drug, such as lysergic acid (LSD) or magic mushrooms (psilocybin). It is called a “trip” because your perceptions of the world change so dramatically, it can feel as if you have taken a trip to a strange, new land.

You hope that it will be a pleasant experience, and it might be, but it can quickly turn unpleasant; sometimes, it is unpleasant from the beginning. This unpleasant experience of hallucinogen intoxication is known as a “bad trip.”

It is common for occasional unpleasant sensations, hallucinations, and thoughts to occur during a trip, and this does not necessarily mean you are having a bad trip. These experiences can sometimes seem interesting or funny, rather than upsetting or frightening, and they can pass quite quickly.

One of the earliest documented bad trips was reported by Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD. He had started experiencing a bad trip, and in an attempt to soothe himself, requested some milk from his next-door neighbor, who appeared to have become “a malevolent, insidious witch.”  

Are Certain People Exempt From Bad Trips?

When people first start experimenting with psychedelic drugs, they sometimes go through a “honeymoon period” causing them to believe all trips are good.

They might believe that they are “safe” from bad trips or that bad trips only happen to people with the wrong attitude. Some believe that bad trips are a myth dreamed up by the establishment to try and discourage people from becoming enlightened or having a good time. Others think that taking the drug with friends or a “guide” will prevent a bad trip.

None of these beliefs are correct—although sometimes they can provide a false sense of security and a carefree attitude that can help keep the mood positive. The more times you take psychedelic drugs, the more likely you are to eventually have a bad trip.

A bad trip can even cause you to think that the people you previously thought were “safe” can no longer be trusted.   If this happens, it can be upsetting both for the person experiencing it, and for their companions, who can feel powerless to help.

Are Certain Drugs Exempt From Bad Trips?

Some psychedelic drug users believe that bad trips can only happen with a drug such as acid or PCP. They think that they can’t experience a bad trip from drugs they perceive as “safe” like ecstasy or magic mushrooms.

Sadly, many people don’t know what a bad trip is until they have one, so it is helpful to know ahead of time what you could experience, and what you should do if you have a bad trip or one of your friends does.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a “safe” drug. In fact, all psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs can cause a bad trip, even ecstasy or magic mushrooms. Other drugs, such as weed (marijuana) and cocaine, can also produce intense, distressing effects, even in people who usually have a good time when intoxicated from these substances.

Signs and Symptoms

Bad trips symptoms vary a great deal and it’s impossible to predict how a hallucinogen will affect you. They can be mild or intense and can range from upsetting and overwhelming thoughts to frightening hallucinations and delusions that can lead to accidents.  

Incidentally, many accidents that occur while under the influence of hallucinogens happen as the result of delusions that are not part of a bad trip. For example, someone might believe that they can fly or that they are indestructible. These kinds of delusions are unusual, but serious injuries and deaths have happened in these situations.  

Though a highly individualized experience, there are some aspects that are often described by people who have had a bad trip.

Time Dilation

This is the experience of time standing still. This can make it feel as if the other unpleasant aspects of the trip will never end.

Tip: If someone is having a bad trip, it can be reassuring to tell them it won’t go on forever, even if they feel as if it will.

Negative Reinterpretations and Paranoia

Previously positive or neutral interpretations of life or relationships can suddenly become negative. Someone having a bad trip might feel that their life is worthless, that they or someone else they normally feel fine about is bad or acting against them, or that the whole world is bad or corrupt.

These feelings can be all-consuming and can cause the person having a bad trip to panic and try and get away from the people around them.

Tip: Generally, it is unwise to allow someone who is having a bad trip to go off on their own, but be aware that acting confrontational or following them may increase their feelings of antagonism or paranoia. Try to have a trusted friend accompany them, saying they want to help them stay safe.

However, a stranger who comes across as caring, genuine, and calm may be more acceptable. Although involving police or medical personnel may be highly upsetting for someone having a bad trip, it is preferable to having them hurt themselves.

Hallucinations

Most of the hallucinations that people have while tripping take the form of visual distortions—such as walls “breathing,” colored or geometric formations, or illusions.  

Sometimes these distortions are extremely vivid, such as a familiar person’s face morphing into that of a demon. Occasionally, hallucinations take the form of seeing beings or objects that don’t even exist.

Tip: Usually, people who are tripping are aware that these hallucinations are the effects of a drug, and can be reassured that what they are seeing is part of the trip.

Mood Swings

Your mood can change dramatically when you are tripping, and feelings of sadness and despair can reach new depths, while anxiety can quickly develop into panic.  

Tip: Although acts of violence or self-harm are unusual while tripping, tell someone as soon as possible if you are having any thoughts about harming yourself or someone else—you are not thinking clearly and indulging in these thoughts may have regrettable consequences.

How to Stop a Bad Trip

Although it is not possible to “switch off” the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, a bad trip can be transformed into a more positive experience if the person having the trip is open to being supported or comforted. Often, lying down and listening to soothing music in the presence of a calm support person can help.

The most intense period of the trip typically occurs from one to three hours after the drug is consumed, so time will usually ease the most intense aspects of the trip, but the effects will often continue for an additional six to twelve hours after that, during which time the person will not be able to sleep.  

Having a bad trip can possibly be averted by the presence of a good friend, and by avoiding people or places that you usually find upsetting. But again, there is no guarantee that this will keep a trip good.

One of the characteristics of hallucinogenic drugs is that they can cause you to see and think about the world in a very different way from how you usually do, so the previously trusted friend can quickly change and appear to be deceitful, mean-spirited, even evil.

If the person is open to receiving medical help, which they may be if they think the intensely unpleasant aspects of the trip could be alleviated, you could accompany them to a walk-in clinic or the emergency room. There may be medical interventions that could help.  

Never attempt to self-medicate by taking other drugs—this is risky and could worsen the effects of the trip or cause drug interactions. It can also lead to developing problems with other drugs taken in an attempt to calm down, such as heroin.

A Word From Verywell

The only way to avoid a bad trip is to avoid hallucinogenic drugs. While you may be intrigued by the idea of tripping, there is a reason that people don’t usually take them for long—sooner or later, they have a bad trip, and never want to repeat the experience.

A bad trip is an unpleasant experience that can happen after taking psychedelic drugs such as lysergic acid (LSD) or magic mushrooms.