Key takeaways.

  • What characterises a bad trip?

    A bad trip is characterised by anxiety, fear, scary visuals, an impending sense of doom, and the feeling that you're going to die.

  • What causes a bad trip?

    Scientists have recently found that glutamate activities might predict whether a person has a good trip or a bad trip. In the shamanic perspective, a bad trip is a form of "purgatory" where a person is essentially cleansed from the very thing they were experiencing during the bad trip.

  • Can a bad trip be good for you?

    Scientists have also found that for many, a bad trip is a transformational and therapeutic experience. Some people seem to be able to transform their bad trips into positive outcomes.

  • How do you avoid a bad trip?

    You don't. You create space for a positive experience by being well prepared, being in a safe environment, being with people you trust, and taking an appropriate dose of magic mushrooms for your experience level.

All mushroom users are in agreement that there are no two mushroom journeys that are quite the same. Sometimes a mushroom journey is very physical; at other times it’s more emotional; other times it’s more visual than anything. And there are even times where it’s everything. Sometimes these “everything” journeys are extremely joyful and other times, it’s the characteristic “bad trip”. 

Interestingly, the “bad trip” seems a lot easier to define than the wonderful, joyful trip. Crawling through forums like Reddit, Erowid, and Shroomery reveals just how much the mushroom-using community is in agreement over what the “bad trip” feels like. It’s characterised by anxiety, paranoia, and ugly/scary visions. These feelings and visions are among a barrage of “experiences” that mushroom users report when enduring a bad trip — more of which we’ll explore in this article.

Many mushroom users question why these experiences happen, as if there seems to be some underlying cause for a bad trip. And scientists have delved into this question, too. In fact, scientists seem to believe that the bad trip might actually have positive therapeutic benefits for the person who experiences them. Which makes us wonder whether we should be avoiding the bad trip or whether we should embrace it as a part of psychedelic healing.

In this article, we’re talking a little bit more about the “bad trip”. Why might it happen and is there something that you can do to avoid it? And most importantly, is there a way that you can transform the bad trip into something that helps you heal and progress on your journey? Let’s jump in!

Characteristics of the bad trip.

A collage art depicting a person sitting with a cheeta next to them and a giant eye for a head.

The bad trip is, quite obviously, bad. It isn’t fun and most people find it very stressful. Mushroom users most often report feelings of anxiety, paranoia, impending doom, and the overwhelming sensation that they are going to die. 

In one particular Shroomery member’s experience, there was nausea, sweating, and dizziness — all leading to the sensation that they thought they were going to die. For this particular person, this state of anxiety continued for days after the trip. 

In this Reddit thread, one mushroom user describes experiencing paranoia when a woman in the park questioned why they seemed so intoxicated. They also experienced dizziness, confusion, and a sort of loss of control. These are very common themes among mushroom users who have experienced a bad trip.Dizziness, nausea, confusion, and a fast-beating heart seem to culminate into emotions of extreme fear and paranoia.

In this user’s experience, they report scary visuals where the world looks “flat”, “wrong”, and “ugly”, and this seems to be the fuel that fires the bad trip experience. This is also common. Sometimes people see things that they are usually afraid of such as spiders, insects, or clowns, appearing as impressions in things or as shadows to things. This can spark a fear reaction which, if it goes far enough, can result in a bad trip. 

But the more we crawled through the different ways different people experience a bad trip, the more we found something particularly interesting. A lot of users who experience a bad trip report some sort of transformational potential within that bad experience. For example, in this thread, a user says that their bad trip showed them how dissatisfied they were with their life, giving them the energy to turn it around. There are more reports of people experiencing some form of healing after their bad trip than those who experience ongoing anxiety after a bad trip.

Why does a bad trip happen?

A collage art depicting a woman dancing among several plants, trees, and birds, a trippy collage art depicting magic mushroom effects.

There are a lot of different explanations from a lot of different perspectives about why a bad trip happens. For lots of regular mushroom users, they simply notice that when they aren’t in the right “head space”, they’re more likely to experience a bad trip. That’s to say — the more stressed you are in that particular moment, the more these stressors can be aggravated.

This ties in closely with the shamanic perspective about why a bad trip happens. In traditional use of psychedelics, negative experiences are associated with purgatory. The negative experience is a cleansing of exactly those things we are experiencing. For example, fully experiencing a distressing memory might give a person a chance to experience it from a different perspective, thereby giving an opportunity to heal from the negative feelings associated with that memory. 

Scientists, too, have wondered why some mushroom trips are simply bad. In an experiment that was published in Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers found that glutamate activity might be the biological explanation for why the bad trip occurs. Increased glutamate activity in the prefrontal cortex predicted a bad trip experience according to this study. Decreased glutamate in the hippocampus, on the other hand, predicted a positive mushroom experience.

However, the researchers also clued into the fact that increase in glutamate activity might also be why people get long-term benefits from magic mushrooms. Glutamate is an important neurotransmitter for neurogenesis — it is essentially used by the brain to create new neural pathways. Theoretically speaking, this process might allow someone to forge out a new perspective on a memory or experience. This could be the basis of why magic mushrooms are showing promise for PTSD and depression.

Can a bad trip be good for you?

A digital artwork depicting a skull with a rainbow coming out of its jaw and flowers on the top; yellow background.

In another study that was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers followed the acute and enduring positive and negative experiences of magic mushroom users. The respondents were asked to report on their worst “bad trip” magic mushroom experience and in total, 1993 people participated in the survey. Researchers found that up to 7.3% sought ongoing psychological care for their bad experience, but despite difficulties in the trip, 84% endorsed the experience and magic mushroom use. 

Like we saw in the many mushroom forum threads, there are a lot of people who seem to be able to turn a bad trip around so that it feels worth it. That doesn’t mean that the experience somehow seems less challenging in retrospect. Rather, people look back on these experiences as the hardest but most rewarding of their lives. 

For example, it may be difficult to confront memories of a traumatic experience. But for some people, the ability to experience this with a new perspective allows them to move past the trauma itself. In another example, it might be uncomfortable and hard to confront our own shortcomings. But confronting ourselves gives us a chance to grow and move forward.

Psychedelics are unlike therapy in the sense that they don’t allow you to lie. You can lie to your therapist about something to avoid talking about it, but psychedelics simply don’t let you do that. And sometimes, the truth is a hard pill to swallow. But ultimately, it’s therapeutic if you swallow it and don’t just spit it back up!

Don’t avoid. Create space.

Digital collage depicting an Alex Grey face surrounded by bees and sunflowers.

There’s no real way to avoid a “bad trip”. Even if you’re in the best possible mood when you take the magic mushrooms, you can still have a challenging experience. It is naive to think that you can control your magic mushroom experience in any way.

Rather than thinking about it as control, you can create space for a wonderful journey. For example, prepare your mind and body by taking a couple of days to relax before having a journey. We outline some preparation techniques in this article.

Another way you can create space for a good mushroom journey is to take them in a place that you feel safe and comfortable in. This doesn’t include festivals and crowded locations. It might include natural spots, at home, or at a friend’s place. Surround yourself with people you trust and are close with. Avoid mixing magic mushrooms with alcohol or other intoxicants so that you don’t become confused or overwhelmed.

Finally, dose is really important. Don’t take more than you feel comfortable with and if you want to push the boundaries, do so in small increments. Overwhelming yourself might make you more susceptible to a bad trip.

As you can see, these methods are less about “avoiding” a bad trip and more about creating the kind of environment that a good trip happens in. There’s no magic thing you can do to prevent a bad trip from happening. If you’re in a safe place, you’re more likely to be able to settle in to whatever it is that you’re experiencing.

Psychedelics deserve respect.

Psychedelic substances aren’t for everyone. There’s still a lot of controversy surrounding whether or not psychedelic use/therapy is appropriate for those with certain mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Plus, the way that we use psychedelics is just as important. Taking psychedelics under the care of a professional is very different to taking them at a party with friends.

For most people, a bad trip can be the beginning of a turning point in life, an experience that transforms into something positive. For a small number of people, there can be ongoing stress and anxiety after a bad trip. The sheer impact of the psychedelic experience is to be respected, and sometimes psychedelics aren’t for everybody.

If you want to use psychedelics to work through a mental health issue, it’s important for you to consult your mental health practitioner first. Same goes if you’re experiencing ongoing anxiety or stress after a magic mushroom experience. Careful guidance from a professional is always advised if you’re experiencing either of these things.

Have you ever had a bad trip? What did it feel like? Was there anything you could do to reduce it? We’d love to hear your bad trip stories in the comments!

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