Bad trips are most commonly associated with psychedelic or hallucinogen drugs, such as LSD, PCP, peyote, or psilocybin mushrooms (shrooms). These drugs are generally consumed orally (eaten or swallowed) or smoked. While ecstasy (Molly) is a stimulant, it can also cause hallucinations and bad trips.
Acknowledging the Unknowns
Research into how psychedelics or hallucinogens affect the brain and the nature of bad trips still has many unanswered questions. The goal of helping someone through a bad trip is to ease anxiety and make the situation safer and more comfortable. As research progresses in this area, assistance and treatment strategies will likely become more defined.
There is even some debate about whether “bad trips” are real in the sense that difficult psychedelic experiences aren’t always “bad.” Many people report experiences that they found challenging or anxiety-inducing at the time, but they later found profound and life-changing.
There is much research into potential legitimate uses for psychedelics, but damage from bad trips can be enduring. Even in pharmaceutical research, many steps are taken to reduce the likelihood of people in trials experiencing bad trips.
Helping Someone Having a Bad Trip
If someone is having a bad trip, it’s important to support them and keep them safe. The goal is to get them through the experience. Follow these steps:
Step 1: Save Your Judgment
Depending on the situation, you may be angry at someone for taking psychedelics and starting to trip. You may have warned them not to do drugs and had expected that they would have a bad trip if they used drugs. It’s important to put these feelings aside if you want to be helpful, even if you and the person tripping may need to have important conversations about their drug abuse at a later date.
Simply put, your judgment won’t be helpful while a person is actively tripping. They’re unlikely to be coherent enough to have a real conversation with you and likely won’t recollect the experience enough to grow from it. For now, approach them with calmness and empathy, focusing on what’s causing them anxiety and trying to ease any negative emotions they’re feeling.
Step 2: Try to Determine What Drugs Were Taken
If a person is tripping, try to determine what drugs they’ve taken. Certain drugs sometimes associated with certain types of experiences, such as ketamine, can cause a highly dissociative state that causes a disconnection from one’s sense of time and reality. It’s helpful to tell emergency responders what a person has taken if medical care is needed.
Step 3: Take Note of Vital Signs
As part of determining if a person might be in danger, monitor their vital signs as best you can. These are the signs of how the body’s most basic, important functions are operating.
Common measures taken to monitor a person’s vitals include body temperature, pulse, and respiration rate. If a person is running very hot or cold, has a particularly slow or fast heart rate, or their breathing seems labored or slowed, that can signal a medical emergency and warrants calling 911, especially if they’re tripping on drugs and cannot meaningfully respond to questions and concerns about their condition. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and call for help.
Step 4: Remain Calm and take a Soothing Tone
However you feel internally, try to remain outwardly calm and act soothing toward a person you believe to be having a bad trip. By acting self-assured and telling a person things will be okay, you can begin to alter how they’re thinking, which may help to shift at least some elements of their trip to be less upsetting. It also helps to establish a hopeful, steady presence even if their trip remains troubling to them.
Step 5: Stay With the Person Tripping
It’s important that you stay with an individual having a bad drug trip, both to continue monitoring their health and so you can remain a calming presence during their ordeal. Even if their ability to respond might be limited, continue to assure them of your presence and that anything scary they’re seeing is temporary and not really there.
Step 6: Allow Them Time to Ease Out
Eventually, a person tripping may become more responsive and more aware of what is and isn’t real, even if some elements of their perception may still be distorted. Treat this as part of the trip. Don’t confront them about their substance use during this period. They are still unlikely to be able to meaningfully engage with you, and it may still cause them far more stress than you intend.
Step 7: Keep Conversations After the Trip Productive
If you want to confront someone about their drug use, especially if it was irresponsible (such as taking drugs in an unsafe environment or when they should have been going to work or caring for their children), keep the conversation productive. Highlight your major concerns and try to keep the conversation about which elements of their behavior cause harm.
Before having any kind of confrontational conversation, make sure to research drug use, especially the specific drugs they used if you can. It can be helpful to engage a professional in this part of the conversation. A professional interventionist can help you stage an intervention if this is an appropriate course of action, particularly if your loved one has been dealing with an addiction. You can also reach out to an addiction treatment center to learn more about whether a program like this is right for your loved one.
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- Reframing bummer trips: Scientific and cultural explanations to adverse reactions to psychedelic drug use. Dyck E, Elcock C. The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. 2020;34(2):271-296.
- Case analysis of long-term negative psychological responses to psychedelics. Bremler R, Katati N, Shergill P, Erritzoe D, Carhart‐Harris R. Scientific Reports. 2023;13(1).
- Avoiding a “bad trip” in psychedelic clinical trials. PharmaVoice. Accessed November 29, 2023.