If you’re considering taking a psychedelic drug, you may be worried about a bad trip—a negative psychedelic experience that can range from unpleasant to terrifying. A psychedelic trip can be a positive, mind-expanding experience, but it’s important to know that it may also be scary, depressing, anxiety-provoking, and disorienting.
Negative psychedelic experiences can be intensely distressing, especially if you’re unprepared for them. If you’re particularly scared of having a bad trip, you may want to avoid psychedelics entirely.
However, bad trips don’t necessarily lead to bad outcomes. Interestingly, the majority of people who have an adverse experience while on psychedelics report positive long-term changes in wellbeing.1
Negative psychedelic experiences happen, but you have more agency in dealing with them than you might think. Here’s how to prepare for a bad trip—and how, if you approach it the right way, you may be able to turn a bad trip into a good experience.
What is a Bad Trip?
A bad trip is a scary, difficult, distressing, or otherwise unpleasant psychedelic experience.
Signs and symptoms of a bad psychedelic trip may include:
- Depressed mood
- Feeling trapped
- Thought loops (being “stuck” on a thought that repeats over and over)
- Fear of losing control
Bad trips can cause lingering anxiety or depression for several days. In rare cases, symptoms may last for up to a few weeks after a psychedelic wears off.2
Can bad trips cause lasting psychological harm?
In a 2016 study, researchers surveyed psychedelic drug users who had had a bad trip while on psilocybin mushrooms. Out of nearly 2,000 responses1:
- For 84% of people, bad trips turned out to be valuable experiences that improved their mental health in the long run
- 7% sought therapy for enduring fear, anxiety, or depression after a bad trip
- 0.0015% (3 people) developed long-lasting psychological symptoms that they couldn’t address with therapy
In other words, while a challenging trip may be unpleasant in the moment, the odds of it causing lingering symptoms seem to be fairly low, and the odds of it causing permanent psychological harm seem to be close to zero.
That said, psychedelic studies are still fairly new. There’s a lot that researchers don’t yet understand about psychedelics, and you may want to take the above results with a grain of salt.
Why Do Bad Trips Happen?
To understand why bad trips happen, it’s important to consider how psychedelics work.
Psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers. They intensify everything going on in your mind, both positive and negative—including your thoughts, emotions, memories, and fears. The contents of your mind feel larger and more meaningful when you’re on psychedelics. Psychedelics also amplify your response to your environment and the people around you.6,7
This kind of amplification can be pleasant—if you’re happy and relaxed, you’ll feel even better while on a psychedelic. You may experience a deep sense of love, understanding, or oneness with the universe.
But if you’re stressed, scared, anxious, or are trying to escape something by taking a psychedelic, all those negative thoughts and feelings will become amplified too. They’ll end up right in front of you, larger than ever, which can lead to panic, anxiety, depression, and everything else that can come with a bad trip.
It’s worth noting that this is one reason psychedelics can be so useful for therapy. If you’re struggling to access a difficult emotion, life situation, memory, etc., a psychedelic will amplify it to the point where you can feel and explore it, which can help you find a sense of resolution.
However, exploring difficult parts of your mind can be unpleasant, particularly if you aren’t prepared for it and are taking a psychedelic recreationally.
How to Prevent a Bad Trip
There’s a lot you can do to decrease your odds of a bad trip. Three major factors are:
Set (short for mindset) refers to your intentions, expectations, and overall mental state as you go into a psychedelic experience. Your mindset has a major influence on how your trip goes.
Fear, anxiety, negativity, or rigid expectations can all lead to a negative psychedelic experience. Research has found that people who score higher on neuroticism—which can include anxiety, irritability, and a desire to control your experience or surroundings—are more likely to have a bad trip.8
Conversely, a relaxed, curious mindset and a positive outlook will likely lead to a good trip.
That said, it’s not easy to change how you feel, and trying to insist that you’re positive or relaxed when you’re actually feeling anxious, scared, etc. will only make things worse, increasing your chances of a bad trip.
Instead, you may want to consider a mindset called experiential processing. It’s a staple of psychedelic therapy and research suggests that it’s a good way to move through difficult psychedelic experiences.5,9
An experiential processing mindset is as follows:
You may face challenging moments during your trip, and that’s okay. If negative feelings come up, you don’t need to escape them.
Instead, commit to staying with any negative experiences as they unfold, and try to be curious about them, even if you’re scared or uncomfortable. It may help to ask questions like “Why is this feeling coming up?” or “Is there deeper meaning behind this feeling?” and see if an answer comes to you.
You don’t need to put pressure on yourself to have a positive experience; you just have to trust that you’re resilient enough to stay with any negative moments and explore them. If you can do that, you’ll be well-equipped to handle your psychedelic experience.
Setting refers to your environment—where you physically are, as well as the people around you.
An uncontrolled or hostile environment is one of the leading predictors of a bad trip.6
Ideally, your setting will be comfortable, safe, controlled, and free from stressors or threats. That includes the people who are with you while you’re on a psychedelic. It’s also good to be with friends or loved ones whom you trust and whose company you enjoy, or with a therapist, trained guide, or other professional.
Make sure you take care of any obligations ahead of time, too. Close out your work email, arrange for childcare—plan for everything before your trip starts. It’s best to avoid demanding situations while you’re on a psychedelic.
Dosage also influences your odds of having a bad trip.
A 2018 study found that higher doses of psychedelics are more likely to cause negative experiences, possibly because you feel further from your everyday reality and less in control, which can be overwhelming.10 By the same token, lower doses corresponded with fewer bad trips.
If you decide to take psychedelics and you’re worried about a bad trip, you may want to start at a half dose or three-quarters dose.
As an interesting side note, the same 2018 study also found that you’re more likely to have mystical experiences at higher doses—experiences like the dissolving of your sense of self, understanding the meaning of life, or a feeling of deep connection to a god or the universe.
Are Bad Trips Always Bad? Possible Benefits of Negative Psychedelic Experiences
The term “bad trip” implies some sort of failure—that your trip was supposed to be positive and it didn’t go that way.
But “bad trip” may be a bit of a misnomer. Unpleasant experiences don’t always lead to bad outcomes. A 2016 study found that the majority of people who have a challenging experience report a long-lasting positive effect on their wellbeing.1
In addition, the intensity of a bad trip actually correlates with an improved outcome—in other words, the harder your psychedelic experience, the more likely you are to see a long-term benefit from your trip.1
This seems counterintuitive at first, but there’s a theory behind it.
- Psychedelics amplify your mental state, which can make it easier for you to access negative emotions, thoughts, memories, and fears that you may otherwise ignore or repress.
- Psychedelics increase openness—your ability to think creatively and consider ideas from a new perspective. (Erritzoe et al. 2019)
- Finally, psychedelics may increase neuroplasticity, your brain’s ability to rewire itself and change thought and behavior patterns. (Ly et al. 2018; de Vos et al. 2021)
Researchers believe that these three things combined—increased access to difficult thoughts, increased openness to new perspectives, and increased neuroplasticity—create an ideal window for psychological change.
These effects may also explain why psychedelic-assisted therapy can cause rapid, long-lasting change in people with depression11, anxiety11, PTSD12, addiction13, and other mental health problems, even after only one or two sessions.
So while bad trips are unpleasant in the moment, they may also be an opportunity to explore and resolve difficult things in your life. It seems contradictory, but a bad trip may lead to positive, lasting change, especially if you’re willing to explore the discomfort that comes up.
Bad trips happen, but with the right preparation, you can handle them (and possibly turn them into something good).
If you pay attention to set, setting, and dose, and you view a bad trip as something to explore instead of something to avoid, you’ll be much better prepared to handle negative experiences—and, ironically, you’ll be less likely to have a bad trip.
Frequently Asked Questions About Bad Trips
What are the symptoms of a bad trip?
Common symptoms of a bad trip include anxiety, panic, paranoia, confusion, depressed mood, feeling trapped, and fear of losing control. However, psychedelic experiences vary depending on your mindset and surroundings, so you may experience different negative symptoms (or none at all).
How often do bad trips happen?
As of 2022, there’s no good data on how often people have bad trips. Anecdotally, bad trips seem to be somewhat uncommon, but not rare. Paying attention to set, setting, and dose can help you minimize your chances of having a challenging psychedelic experience.
How do you avoid a bad trip on psychedelics?
Ensure that you’re in a safe and comfortable setting when you take psychedelics. Avoid large doses of psychedelics, and go into your experience with the mindset that if something negative comes up, you can handle it, and you’ll stay with it instead of trying to run from it.
Can a bad trip cause lasting harm?
Research suggests that the risk is low of a bad trip causing you lasting harm. In a survey of nearly 2,000 people who had bad trips, about 7% sought therapy for lingering anxiety, fear, or depression. Only three people reported irreversible psychological problems from a bad trip.
Things to Know About Bad Trips on Psychedelics
What is a bad trip?
A bad trip is a challenging, scary, or otherwise difficult psychedelic experience. Signs and symptoms of a bad trip include anxiety, panic, depression, fear, paranoia, confusion, feeling trapped, and fear of losing control. Bad trips can range from mildly unpleasant to traumatizing.
Why do bad trips happen?
- Psychedelics amplify your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
- That can be good if you’re in a positive mindset—you may experience deep feelings of love, connectedness, joy, and other positive emotions.
- However, if you’re in a negative mindset, psychedelics will amplify that too, which can cause panic, paranoia, and other negative emotions.
- Psychedelics may also bring to light subconscious or repressed negative emotions, memories, and feelings, which can be unpleasant.
- High doses of psychedelics increase your chances of a bad trip.
- A hostile or uncontrolled environment can also cause a bad trip.
How to prevent a bad trip
- Decreasing your odds of a bad trip comes down to set, setting, and dose.
- Set refers to your mindset. Ideally, you’ll go into a trip with an open mind, an optimistic attitude, and a willingness to explore any challenges that come up.
- Setting refers to your environment when you take a psychedelic. Choose a place that is safe and comfortable.
- If you’re taking a psychedelic with other people, make sure you trust and like them. Friends, loved ones, a therapist, or a trained guide may all be good choices.
- Take care of any obligations ahead of time. Close your work email, arrange for childcare—the pressure of responsibilities may stress you out while you’re on a psychedelic.
- Avoid unusually high doses of psychedelics, especially if it’s your first time.
Bad Trips May Not Be All Bad
Psychedelics increase your access to difficult emotions, make you more open to new perspectives, and increase your neuroplasticity, allowing your brain to make rapid change in a short amount of time. They can help you explore challenging experiences and process them, leading to long-term improvements in your mental health.
1. Carbonaro TM, Bradstreet MP, Barrett FS, et al. Survey study of challenging experiences after ingesting psilocybin mushrooms: Acute and enduring positive and negative consequences. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2016;30(12):1268-1278. doi:10.1177/0269881116662634
3. Hendricks PS, Thorne CB, Clark CB, Coombs DW, Johnson MW. Classic psychedelic use is associated with reduced psychological distress and suicidality in the United States adult population. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2015;29(3):280-288. doi:10.1177/0269881114565653
5. Gorman I, Nielson EM, Molinar A, Cassidy K, Sabbagh J. Psychedelic harm reduction and integration: A transtheoretical model for clinical practice. Front Psychol. 2021;12:645246. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.645246
7. Hartogsohn I. The Meaning-Enhancing Properties of Psychedelics and Their Mediator Role in Psychedelic Therapy, Spirituality, and Creativity. Front Neurosci. 2018;12:129. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00129
9. Gadeikis D, Bos N, Schweizer S, Murphy F, Dunn B. Engaging in an experiential processing mode increases positive emotional response during recall of pleasant autobiographical memories. Behav Res Ther. 2017;92:68-76. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2017.02.005
12. Mithoefer MC, Feduccia AA, Jerome L, et al. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of PTSD: study design and rationale for phase 3 trials based on pooled analysis of six phase 2 randomized controlled trials. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2019;236(9):2735-2745. doi:10.1007/s00213-019-05249-5