What Is a Bad Trip?

Psychedelic drugs can induce fear or distress

avoiding a bad trip

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

A trip is a period of intoxication from a hallucinogenic drug such as lysergic acid (LSD) or magic mushrooms (psilocybin). An unpleasant experience of hallucinogen intoxication is known as a "bad trip."

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 if one of your friends does.

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.

Most people hope that the trip will be a pleasant experience, and it might be, but it can also quickly turn unpleasant. Sometimes, it is unpleasant from the beginning.

It is common for unpleasant sensations, hallucinations, and thoughts to occur during a trip. This does not necessarily mean you are having a bad trip as these experiences can sometimes seem interesting or funny rather than upsetting or frightening.

Quick Fact

One of the earliest documented bad trips was reported by Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD. He 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. This can cause them to believe all trips are good.

Some also feel that bad trips are a myth dreamed up by the establishment to discourage people from becoming enlightened or having a good time. Others think that taking a psychedelic drug with friends or a "guide" will prevent a bad trip.

These beliefs can provide a false sense of security as there is no foolproof way to avoid having a bad trip. And the more often you take psychedelics, the greater your risk of eventually having a negative experience.

In an online survey of 1,993 people who've used psilocybin mushrooms, 39% said that their worst "bad trip" was among the top five most challenging experiences they've ever faced—and the higher the dosage of the drug, the more difficult the challenge.

Are Certain Drugs Exempt From Bad Trips?

Some people who use psychedelic drugs believe that bad trips can only happen with drugs like acid or PCP. They think that they can't have this type of experience with drugs they perceive as being safe, like ecstasy or magic mushrooms.

But there is no such thing as a "safe" drug. In fact, all psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs can cause a bad trip, even ecstasy and 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 of a Bad Trip

It's impossible to predict how a hallucinogen will affect you, and trip symptoms can vary a great deal. They can be mild or intense and range from upsetting or 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. Someone might believe that they can fly, for example, or that they are indestructible. These kinds of delusions are unusual but serious injuries and deaths have happened as a result.

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

Time Dilation

Time dilation is the experience of time standing still, which can make it feel as if the unpleasant aspects of the trip will never end. Some people report having absolutely no perception of time at all during a trip.

Scientists are still somewhat unclear as to what causes the distortion of time, whether this effect is due to neurochemical impacts of the drug on the body or if it is caused by an altered state of consciousness.

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

Negative Reinterpretations and Paranoia

A bad trip may cause you to think that the people you once thought were safe can no longer be trusted. Previously positive or neutral interpretations of life or relationships can suddenly become negative.

If this happens, it can be upsetting both for the person experiencing it and their companions (who feel powerless to help). Someone having a bad trip might feel that their life is worthless, that someone they normally feel fine about is acting against them, that they are bad, or that the whole world is bad or corrupt.

These feelings can be all-consuming and 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.

In some cases, involving experienced medical personnel may be warranted, even if highly upsetting for the person having a bad trip.

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—compared to someone with schizophrenia, for instance, who believes that their hallucinations to be real. So, someone experiencing hallucinations with a bad trip may feel reassured by confirming that what they are seeing is part of the trip.

Mood Swings

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

Although rare, some people using hallucinogens may experience persistent mood changes over time, particularly if they have a history of mental illness, although this effect can occur in anyone using these drugs.

Tip: While 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 Long Does a Bad Trip Last?

When taking a hallucinogen, the length of the trip can vary depending on the drug. Some drugs are known to have short trips of only 15 minutes (like synthetic DMT, a white powder that is typically smoked), while others can involve a trip that lasts up to 12 hours (such as LSD).

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 extreme aspects of the trip. That said, the effects will often continue for an additional six to 12 hours after that, during which time the person will not be able to sleep.

How to Stop a Bad Trip

Although it is not possible to "switch off" the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, a bad trip may be able to be transformed into a more positive experience. Research suggests that "set and setting"—which refers to state of mind and environment—play a role in how a trip plays out.

With this in mind, here are a few things you can do to potentially help stop a bad trip:

While these tips may help, they do not guarantee a "good" trip. For instance, 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, or even evil.

Seeking Help for a Bad Trip

If you or the person experiencing a bad trip is open to receiving medical help, going to a walk-in clinic or the emergency room is an option. There may be medical interventions that could help reduce the effects of the trip.

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

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 many people don't take them for long. Sooner or later, they have a bad trip and never want to repeat the experience.

15 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.