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Callum Abbott

How to make the best of a bad psychedelic trip

It’s normal to feel nervous about having a tough time on psychedelics – here’s how you can prepare yourself if things get too much

The psychedelic renaissance has reignited awareness of the healing and awe-inspiring potential of hallucinogenic compounds such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, ketamine and MDMA. While psychedelics have been demonised since the war on drugs began in the 1970s, today they are starting to be hailed as breakthrough therapies to treat the global mental health crisis.

Known to induce new, unfamiliar states of consciousness and profound feelings of wellbeing, oneness, love and connection in their users, Indigenous communities have been using psychedelic plant medicines for healing and spiritual enlightenment since time immemorial. “Psychedelics have the potential to be a legitimate psychotherapeutic tool,” explains Harry Shapiro, director of evidence-based information platform Drugwise. “The potential there is quite significant, particularly when antidepressants don’t work or do damage.” 

But as we ride the crest of this new psychedelic wave, it’s important to do so consciously. Psychedelics are non-addictive, but they are still powerful hallucinogenic substances (not to mention illegal) and many people are often understandably concerned about having a bad trip. So, if you want to reduce the chances of having an adverse psychological reaction, here’s what to do.


What exactly constitutes a bad trip? Symptoms can include panic, depressed mood, confusion, nausea, paranoia and heart palpitations, not to mention ego-dissolution and reality-defying hallucinations. The best way to avoid a bad trip is to experience psychedelics under the wing of a reputable shaman or therapist, or even an experienced friend who you trust, where timely intervention and guidance can quash any oncoming downward spirals.

This obviously isn’t always possible, so if you do find yourself on a psychedelic journey in an ‘uncontrolled’ setting (AKA the big, bad world) you can bolster your chances of a fun and pleasurable trip the same way as you would for any kind of travel: preparation. Creating the appropriate dose, set and setting can make all the difference to your psychedelic experience. 

Due diligence when it comes to preparing an appropriate dose is crucial; the higher the dose, the murkier your affiliation with reality becomes, the more overwhelmed you are likely to feel. 

Set refers to your internal mindset. It includes your personality, expectations, fears and wishes. If the thought of taking a hallucinogenic substance is inducing hives, it’s probably not the right time to be doing so. Preparing mentally by setting clear intentions can help lay the appropriate groundwork for a psychedelic experience.

Setting constitutes the external environment, which can be the hardest to plan for due to its variability. But there is really no right or wrong answer (within reason) as psychedelic use has been both wholeheartedly enjoyed and sorely regretted across settings such as underground clubs, magical rainforests and dingy student dorms. 

Whether it’s “scented candles and some Pink Floyd”, as Shapiro puts it, or ritualistic chants and rhythms, music is often used in both clinical and indigenous psychedelic settings. This is largely due to its ability to increase emotional awareness, release and transformation.


Despite all this, you never quite know how it’s going to go, so it’s best to be prepared for all eventualities. If you start to feel weird on your next trip (or if you’re already reading this from the tumultuous trenches of psychonautical inquiry), here’s what you can do: 

STEP ONE: don’t panic. Creating resistance against significant themes that emerge in your trip will generally reify what you’re trying to avoid. One study found that a state of surrender at the start of a psychedelic session most strongly predicted mystical experiences and long-term beneficial outcomes, while a state of preoccupation is most likely to induce challenging experiences. Remind yourself that you’re tripping balls and that this, too, shall pass. You just need to ride it out.

STEP TWO: if possible, communicate with someone you can trust to calm you down – having a trip sitter to anchor your reality and keep you safe is ideal for when the going gets tough. If you’re in the US, you can also speak to trained volunteers at the Fireside Project, a non-profit organisation established to provide emotional support for those going through a challenging experience on psychedelics. Failing this, there are mental health crisis helplines such as Samaritans or Shout, all of which are anonymous, free and always open.


From the shamanic perspective, frightening, seemingly negative and challenging experiences come with the territory of psychedelic experiences. Wading through the darker reaches of our consciousness is ‘shadow work’ and an essential step towards spiritual and emotional growth. This is backed up by scientific findings showing that psychedelic users who have experienced challenging trips often characterise those experiences as important turning points, realisations or awakenings.

By creating and re-telling a narrative, psychedelic users can make sense of difficult and confusing experiences. This transformation through storytelling aligns with the integrative phase of psychedelic therapy which follows medicated sessions. Many participants in this study retrospectively asserted that a ‘bad’ trip triggered deep, meaningful insights which marked a turning point and catalysed growth.


Psychedelic users know that there is a fine, precarious and largely uncontrollable line between a good trip and a terrible one. One minute you’re riding atop the magic carpet of a fuzzy-warm, one-love panacea; then all of a sudden the cloud alpaca stops dancing in ecstatic synergy with the summer breeze and tells you that your mother was right all along and that you are, in fact, just like your narcissistic father. Before you know it, you’ve plummeted through the core of the earth into a kaleidoscopic obliteration of ego which leaves you wondering who you once were and whether you will ever be anyone again. We’ve all been there (right??).

The truth is that asking why bad trips happen is much like asking why bad things happen. They just do. Bad and good, pleasure and pain, are diametric opposites situated on the same spectrum, so the relationship between them will always be complex and intertwined. Not to defer too heavily to poetic adages, but there’s no light without shadow. Ultimately, we should remember that it’s less about escaping bad trips, and more about making sense of them in a constructive and empowering way.

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