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Mitigating The Chances of a Bad Trip (Part 1)

For a lot of people, the fear of having a bad trip during a psychedelic experience can be discouraging. This episode transcript unravels the risks of placing labels on your journey and explains how setting expectations can be both limiting and liberating to our greater healing purpose. 

Our co-founders, Nick and Jimmy, draw distinctions between adverse and bad trips, explaining why a challenging experience may actually be exactly what you need. They provide tangible examples and common themes of a bad trip, discussing how internal resistance feeds upon itself to create more separation between our egos and our authentic truths.

They’ll examine the role of self acceptance and surrender in laying down resilient and conscious foundations that are conducive to a fruitful journey. They also emphasize the importance of receiving adequate support throughout this process and illustrate the discomfort that may arise if psychedelics are taken in a recreational setting.

Later, they tackle why there are no guarantees in a psychedelic experience and how curiosity can help you grow through the discomfort of these uncharted territories. Finally, they propose a thought exercise that will help you gauge if a therapeutic psychedelic experience is right for you. 

Episode 10: How To Mitigate The Chances of a Bad Trip

Jimmy Nguyen: Welcome to the Psychedelic Passage podcast. My name is Jimmy Nguyen. This is my partner in crime, Nick Levich. We are co-founders of Psychedelic Passage and hosts of this podcast here. Thank you for joining us. 

We’re going to talk about probably one of my favorite topics today, which is a bad trip, psychedelic bad trips. And I’ll already preface that we likely will need two episodes for this. And so our intention- as setting intentions is so important in psychedelic work in general, our intention for this conversation to talk about high level bad trips. 

The philosophy of it, the concept of it, how that plays into the culture of psychedelics and just the culture of our society in general. And then in the next episode we’ll dive into tangible, actionable ways to navigate bad trips, adverse experiences, or just avoid it all together because that is also possible. So let me start with this. 

Bad trips are something that has started ever since the war on drugs has been around. Essentially it’s this idea that if you take a substance, that there is this potential for permanent psychosis, there’s a potential for just bad things to happen. And so I think for many folks who think about psychedelics, the first framing is ‘how do I avoid a bad trip?’.

Because it’s just baked into this, it’s kind of this inevitable thing and there’s a lot of layers to what I just said. By the way, I’ll also state that psychedelics are not for everybody. So there are folks who either have a preexisting mental health condition or preexisting something that likely psychedelics won’t be the right avenue or option for you, which is why screening, preparation, all that is so important. 

But let’s assume that you’ve done all that and that you’ve moved into getting ready for a psychedelic experience and this kind of thing is floating around, this fear maybe in the back of your mind about a bad trip. So let me frame it this way and I’d love to get your thoughts, Nick. 

In the harm reduction world surrounding psychedelics, many practitioners and folks kind of take the stance that there’s no such thing as a bad trip, meaning that bad trips are either misunderstood, challenging, overwhelming adverse experiences, but ‘bad’ is essentially an assignment of judgment, like where we’re saying, oh ‘this is bad, we got to avoid, avoid’. So let’s just start there. I’d love to get your thoughts on that, Nick. 

What is a Bad Trip?

Nick Levich: Yeah, so I think that we need to draw a distinction between ‘adverse’ and ‘bad’. From my perspective, the ‘bad’ trip is typically referring to a challenging or difficult experience while being under the influence of a psychedelic like psilocybin, LSD, DMT, or Ayahuasca

In a lot of ways, a challenging or difficult experience is baked into choosing to sit with one of these medicines. By that definition I have had hundreds of bad trips because at some point in every journey there’s discomfort or struggle or that feeling of wanting to crawl out of your skin. 

And at least for me, and I’ve seen this in a lot of clients’ journeys too, not always, but sometimes, there’s an adverse experience which I think deserves its own definition. I think you’re better at describing this, but this has far more to do with actual moral, ethical, and safety concerns

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, where I come from with this is that it’s such an important distinction because when folks say, ‘oh, there’s no such thing as a bad trip’, I’m like, yeah, there actually is such a thing as a bad trip, but it depends on whether it’s a psychedelic mechanism that’s actually causing that or not. 

And so there is such a thing when you are getting abused by your facilitator or when somebody is taking advantage of you in your vulnerable and altered state, whether that’s sexually, financially, physically, mentally, importing ideas and suggestions into your mind, those are not good things. 

But the key is that it’s typically a result of improper care, not necessarily, an effect of the psychedelic compound itself. And then there are a couple of things within the psychedelic experience that can kind of lead you down a pathway of either an intrusive thought or a looping pattern or something like that can also heighten your feeling of safety and comfortability and all of those things. 

So I just want to be very very clear- and I like what you said about adverse versus bad. An adverse experience with psychedelics- that exists. Which is why you gotta find somebody that you really trust, that you’re really doing your homework. You’re doing your research. 

You feel very comfortable with that person so that they can support you in navigating whatever direction the psychedelic experience goes. That you’re going through proper screening, that you’re preparing so that you don’t get sidewinded by some content or piece or thing that comes up. 

But I like what you said, Nick. People engage with psychedelics to deal with that rough s***. They do that to deal with the hard stuff. And so if we’re identifying that a bad trip is to avoid all that stuff and that it should be all rainbows and butterflies, you’re actually missing out on a huge part of the whole equation, which is why people are seeking psychedelic experiences to process that stuff. 

Nick Levich: I’ll also share that what happens is that concept of challenge or discomfort that most people label as ‘bad’. What that really does is it expands our comfort zone. It pushes the boundaries of what we’re able to deal with and to hold. And what ultimately that does is it increases our capacity for strength and for healing. 

And so if you talk to most people who have had one of those experiences, they will often tell you that it was just what they needed and they’re actually grateful for it once they’ve processed and integrated it. 

But while you’re going through it, I mean, it can seem like you’re dying or like time is standing still or like you are falling into the void. Like at the time, not super comfortable, but once it’s been integrated, it’s incredibly empowering. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, I mean, I’ve had many death and rebirth experiences in my own psychedelic events. Those are the best ones. Those are the ones where you really get to look at your life and really make an assessment on what’s important to my life or not. And so I think that ‘bad trips’ kind of have this stigma in our society. There’s this thing around it. 

Around the conversations about bad trips. And most folks are like ‘Let me avoid that. Let me avoid that. Let me avoid that’. What I find, like you’re saying, with most people who go through those challenging or overwhelming experiences with the right support, with the right process, is they actually report back and are like ‘actually that was the most important thing that I could have done. That’s the most important thing’. 

Or what I love with some clients who are like, ‘well, I’ve already been through hell and back, so it can’t get any worse than it is now. Let’s bring it’. Like they have this level of warrior resilience about them, which I also really respect and appreciate. 

Nick Levich: So to be clear, if you engage with psychedelics for long enough, it’s unavoidable. At a certain point you’re going to have a challenging or uncomfortable experience. And so I like to use another analogy, which is that it’s a bit more like running a marathon than it is like going to a party with your friends, right? 

The party with your friends is for fun, it’s for recreation, it’s for joy, it’s for happiness. But when you run a marathon, it’s hard work, but then you cross that finish line and it’s incredibly rewarding. And so if you’re seeking a rewarding experience, there’s going to be some work involved. It is not going to be inherently easy. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, and I also hear people who run marathons, they talk about that ‘runner’s high’ that kicks in where the first couple of miles- I’ve never ran a marathon. 

That would be dope though, but they have to really think mechanically about it, they have to really put their mind on it and whatever, but then after a certain period, they’re just in this flow state, they’re just in that existing and then that’s an altered state in itself, I would imagine. 

And then they moved through the marathon. But I think one thing that you brought up that’s so important with this, people talk a lot about ‘set and setting’. I actually share with a lot of my clients about ‘containers’, of which set and setting is a part of containers. And so the container has to be conducive to whatever it is that’s going on with you. 

Like, have you ever tried to drink water out of a plate? It’s not going to work. If you drink water out of a cup, likely that’s going to be really really effective. And so when you talk about that party setting where folks- I mean, let’s be honest. 

There are people who go out there and use psychedelics recreationally, it’s not always in an intentional setting, it’s not always in a controlled environment, it’s not always in a clinical or ceremonial setting. 

And that’s actually where we see a lot of reports of bad trips. Because when you’re out with your friends, think about the container. The container is ‘everybody needs to be having a good time and everybody needs to be social’ and maybe you’re at a concert where you’re up and dancing and if there’s anything that doesn’t match those things then there’s something wrong. 

So a lot of times, I’ll at least speak for myself, I’ll be out there in a recreational environment. Everything’s all fun and then I have this memory or I’ll have this processing or I’ll think about my relationship with my family or think about just something really deeply and then another part of me kicks in and I’m like ‘Oh well, I shouldn’t be processing this or dealing with this right now because I’m supposed to be here and having fun and I’m supposed to be here’ and so on and so forth. 

And so that for me, creates at times a lot of different riffs, a lot of different adverse things that can be possible when you are not in the proper container, when you’re not in the proper support. And so what ends up happening is folks try to stuff that down. 

They’re like, ‘no, I don’t want to deal with this now, I want to just get back to the rainbows and butterflies’ which can then exacerbate the adverse experience or the bad trip.

 I also feel like there’s a couple of other things that are common pitfalls for folks, which I’m not sure if that’s a part of this conversation or the next one, but the feeling that you’re kind of stuck in that experience for a very long time or that feeling like you’re never going to come back to sobriety. 

That can also cause people to have a little bit of panic. So that’s where it’s helpful to have somebody around to be like ‘no, time is still progressing’. That you will at some point come back down to sobriety. That you will at some point come back down. 

So that reassurance can also be really helpful for folks. But I’m trying to think about some of these other things that are classic like ‘bad trips’. Looping is another one that can come up. I don’t know if you want to chat about looping a little bit and like psychedelic experiences. 

Nick Levich: Basically the idea with thought loops is that once a seed gets planted for a certain thought it just keeps repeating itself. And so it could be as simple as something like ‘I’m dying’ or ‘I’m stuck this way’, but it just keeps looping and it can be very difficult to get out of that. And so we’ll talk about tools on how to do this in our next episode, the follow up to this as far as how to actually navigate these things. 

But it’s important for us to draw some tangible examples of what a bad trip may look and feel like for those who may go through it. And I also want to touch on something around this whole concept of a bad trip, which is just how conditioned we are for labels. Because who decides what a good versus a bad trip is? 

Managing Your Expectations for a Psychedelic Experience

Nick Levich: You’re the only person that gets to choose that. And somebody may go through a very challenging journey and label that as ‘good’, and somebody may go through the same challenging journey and label that as ‘bad’. And so I don’t love this term ‘bad trip’ because it’s so arbitrary. 

Everyone is going to have a different definition of what that looks and feels like. And it’s really important that we understand how we’re using these labels as we approach psychedelic experiences. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, it’s all expectations setting, right? Like a part of this is, ‘oh, if I have a bad trip..’, you’re kind of assuming that there’s no utility or benefit of it. Like if it’s bad, meaning it’s not in service to me, there’s no benefit here. Why am I going through this? 

And if you view it as a ‘bad’ trip, you’re going to close the door on any potential learning or benefit that can come from that really challenging experience. Surprise, surprise. That’s why they call it work. Like we’re doing inner work. It’s in the name that we use to call it. And so work is not fun and celebratory all the time. 

Nick Levich: Well, it’s also worth touching on the fact that in order to heal, we have to feel. And for a lot of people that means unearthing this suppressed or repressed emotion which we don’t feel in our normal day to day lives because it’s uncomfortable. 

But in a psychedelic experience when our default mode network or ego mechanism, if you will, is turned down or off, we have the capacity to approach that material without our normal defense mechanisms. 

And so inherently as that gets unearthed, it’s not going to be particularly comfortable. If you have a traumatic memory from age seven to ten that gets unearthed at age 30, 40, 50, it’s not going to be particularly comfortable. But the relief that’s felt on the back end of that experience is what creates the lasting change that most people seek. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, there’s a level of practical and strategic insight about what you’re describing too, because how resilient would you be if you walked into any experience thinking, ‘this is a service to me’, ‘this has a potential benefit for me’. Maybe that’s a little selfish, but ‘this thing that’s happening is actually in support of me’. 

And in a weird way there’s a practicalness to that because that means that you can move through that experience in a way that is helpful to you. Like anybody who’s ever grinded at work going for that promotion or that whatever, knows what I’m talking about, where they’re saying ‘if I do this and I put in the hours in and I put in the work and I do this, it’s actually all going to be in benefit to me because I’ll achieve XYZ’. 

And so just having that mental state of being open minded about what is actually in service to you versus what is not in service to you is really important. And that’s also why it’s so important to have people around you who can actually support you in that. I’m probably talking even beyond the psychedelic experience in general. 

This is just life stuff in general, but so much of this is you getting very real with the expectations that you have set up. And so if you walk into a psychedelic experience wanting to avoid bad trips, ‘I want to avoid adverse experiences, I want to avoid all that’, well that’s a lot of pressure. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself as opposed to just taking the experience for what it is. 

I even hear this on the back end when folks come out of psychedelic experiences and then they chat with their family and friends and they’re like how was it? Was it magical? Was it wonderful? Was it like everything that you wanted it to be? Well that’s also a lot of pressure. 

And so when we’re talking about bad we’re also talking about the pressure of it being good too. And I think that there’s a lot of folks out there who feel this pressure on like ‘oh well, it needs to be this magical thing that I saw on Netflix or Fantastic Fungi and all that. I have had plenty of psychedelic experiences where for lack of a better term, I was in my own s*** for hours. 

Meaning that I was looking at all the stuff under the hood and without the right support, all of that could have probably been very damaging. But I then chose to find the right support and find the right people around me to then process that, which then it becomes the most remarkable event in my life to your point, very contextual. 

And I think that this is why we share with our clients that you just got to set your intention, you just got to set your reason for being, your reason for moving into this and then remove all expectations on how that looks, which I think also includes the bad trip, the bad experiences and then also the good trips and the good experiences. 

And so when we remove ourselves from these labels as much as possible, that’s kind of what I’m hearing you saying.

Nick Levich: That’s right, and we talk about this with how to navigate the journey. It’s like withholding judgment. Just let the experience happen and you can try to unpack it during integration, but there’s a certain element of surrender required. Well, we’ll talk about this next time, we’ll talk about this kind of trade off between surrender and the ease of the journey. 

And this is one of those things where context is everything. Because if you’re aware that some of these challenges are normal themes and experiences within a psychedelic journey, you’re not caught off guard by it. 

I think a lot of the reason people find themselves in this kind of traditional ‘bad’ trip territory, if you will, is because they’re not even aware that something like ego death or thought loops or coming face to face with your unsavory aspects of yourself.

They’re not even aware that’s baked into the experience, that it’s a possibility. And so there’s actually more harm done by being unaware of its potential, as opposed to just knowing that it’s a possibility that these themes arise. 

And then when it happens, you’re like, okay, I knew that this was going to happen, and I knew that it was temporary and I know that I’m not stuck this way. But if you don’t know any of those things, that’s really where I find things get extra challenging. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Seeing it coming or having the potential that stuff’s going to come up is strategically a way better stance than just walking in and being like, ‘alright, I’m ready for the mushrooms to heal me’. And then it’s like, man, if something really goes sideways or you get blindsided by something, then that can be really challenging. And so I’ll also just add that we’re just humans. We’re survival mechanisms. 

We’re walking pattern machines, predicting things and assessing things. Those expectations are baked into our human experience. Like, we expect the sun to rise, we expect the sun to go down, we expect certain things. And so it’s a part of our human chemistry, I think, in just DNA, to observe patterns and have an idea of what we think is going to happen, that helps from a survival mechanism. 

It is a double edged sword when you’re walking into a psychedelic experience, because the moment that it doesn’t look the way that you don’t think it looks or that you think it should look, that’s then when your mind starts to label it, you’re like, ‘oh, it doesn’t look like how I thought in here, so this must not be working, this must not be whatever’. 

And then the same for bad trips is how resilient are you to lean into whatever that content is? Because if all you’re doing is, ‘oh, that’s bad, let me avoid, avoid, avoid’, then how is that actually beneficial? If you’re trying to navigate something that happened to you when you were a kid or you’re at a crossroads in your life trying to make the right decision, like moving. 

The Role of Self Acceptance in Preventing a Bad Trip 

Nick Levich: And the irony here is that trying to avoid what’s already happening organically actually creates more discomfort. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah. 

[Jimmy laughs]

Nick Levich: So like, okay, the psychedelic experience is a rollercoaster ride. This thing is on rails and it’s got its own set path. And if you’re trying to steer that roller coaster, you’re just going to create far more discomfort for yourself because it’s on tracks, you’re not moving it. 

And one of the things that we see time and time again, both ourselves as journeyers and facilitating for folks is the more you try to push something away, the harder the medicine fights back. The more you try to control it, the more discomfort there is. It’s very paradoxical in that nature. And, you know, the best thing we can do, and this is what you were talking about, Jimmy, is just accept what’s happening. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah. I’ve had clients who have gone into a psychedelic experience basically ready to go to war with themselves. They’re like, ‘I just know that there’s a lot of stuff in here and I’m ready for it’. Oftentimes. I’d probably say 80%, those clients actually get really blissful and joyful experiences because they were willing to go there, right there like, ‘I’m willing, but if not, cool’. 

And then there are some other clients who also feel like going to battle a war with themselves is actually the only way to heal, in which case that’s going to come up. That inner conflict and that inner struggle and all of that. 

Nick Levich: So let’s be clear, it’s about self acceptance. It’s about loving yourself. I don’t think trying to fight yourself is the solution here. It’s radical acceptance, unconditional love of both the savory and unsavory aspects of ourselves. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah. What I share with my clients is that, obviously through preparation, we get through preparation and I tell them, “at some point you’re going to feel like you’ve done as much as you can to prepare”. And then I tell them “all that you need to do on the day of ceremony is show up with all your s***”. Like fully show up with all this stuff. 

Meaning that if you were a hallway and there were doors all leading down this corridor, every one of them should be available and accessible to open if they get opened. 

The moment that you come across one and there’s a locked door and you’re like, ‘oh, there’s that thing that I’m not sure of’, then that’s when that stuff comes up and then that conflict, that internal conflict, that internal resistance can feed upon itself.

Also, for folks who are dealing with habitual patterns or disruptive thoughts, all of those things that come up, typically when folks prepare for a psychedelic experience, those things are going to come up even stronger leading into the experience because likely you’re bringing those things more to the surface. 

And so this kind of goes back to what you were talking about where you expand your comfort zone by being outside of your comfort zone. You expand your boundaries by knowing where your boundaries lie and all that stuff. 

And so when folks move through or prepare for a psychedelic experience and they’re like, ‘oh, my self judgment, it’s really going off in my brain right now’, or ‘my lack of self worth. It’s really strong. It’s really strong leading into a psychedelic experience’. And for most folks, all that stuff is bad. 

They want to have less negative self-talk and they want to have less self-deprecating stuff. But if you’re actually bringing all those things to the surface in preparation for a psychedelic experience, maybe that’s actually a benefit to you. 

And so this is what we’re talking about, where so much of this is subjective and contextual and it just depends on your process and your journey. But you’re the one that decides. You’re the one that decides whether this thing is beneficial to address or not address. 

Nick Levich: Yeah, I mean, I want to go back to this thing which is that a lot of times that challenging material becomes the most crucial part of the psychedelic experience because it results in that positive mental, physical and spiritual growth that you desire. I just pulled this up. There’s a study from the Journal of Psychopharmacology which pulled about 2000 Psilocybin users. 

And of this set of people, 39% labeled the experience as one of the most challenging of their lives. However, the total participants stated that this challenge was a positive experience in the long term. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Wow. 

Nick Levich: And so it just goes to show there’s this direct correlation between a challenging, uncomfortable experience and the perceived benefit once it’s been adequately integrated and processed. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah, and I want to be really thoughtful here to our viewers. We’re talking about all this labeling stuff and there’s a term called ‘spiritual bypassing’ which is about taking any adverse thing and then you just find the silver lining or you find the framing or you just always frame it in a positive light. It’s not about saying that the really difficult thing that you’re going through should be viewed in a good lense. 

What it is just acknowledging the significance and power of what it is for what it is, without assigning any labels to it. And then therefore, you actually might be able to navigate that in a more enriching and significant way for your own healing process. So this isn’t about turning demons into angels and all that stuff or like I said earlier, rainbows and butterflies. 

This is just really feeling equipped to navigate and address any and all of that as it comes up. And I’ll also say this, there is a real benefit for folks to speak about psychedelics in a very positive light in our society right now. It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s an alternative. A lot of people are getting some benefit from it, but everything has a shadow side. 

Everything has its own risk. Everything has all of that. And so at any time that you’re talking to a facilitator or something and they’re telling you, ‘oh, I’ll help you avoid a bad trip’, or ‘oh, take this combination of this specific strain of psilocybin mushrooms that has never given any of my clients a bad trip’. Proceed with caution. 

Nick Levich: Proceed knowing there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees in this work. That’s the bottom line. 

Jimmy Nguyen: And anybody who is trying to do that is essentially selling you snake oil. I would much rather myself, personally, I’ll be selfish. I’d feel much safer for you to work with somebody who’s like ‘You know what. You may go through some s***. You may go through some challenging stuff. 

You may go through some beautiful stuff. But I’m going to be here right with you and I’m going to help you navigate that and I’m going to support you in whatever way for you to fully express yourself in a psychedelic experience’. 

As opposed to being like ‘Yeah. It’s going to be really great and we’ll avoid all the bad trips’ and all that’s bull****. Basically. 

Nick Levich: I want to leave this with one point before we wrap up today, which is that for most of us, we spend so much of our lives seeking pleasure and avoiding pain that this can seem a little counterintuitive or unnatural for us to step deep into what it is that we’ve suppressed or repressed. But that’s really what allows us to heal. 

And so I always leave my clients or potential clients that I speak with, with a way to kind of gauge where they’re at to see if a journey like this makes sense. And essentially it’s understanding that only when the pain of the present moment outweighs the potential discomfort of change do we as humans typically change our ways. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah. 

Nick Levich: And I think that’s a good barometer for anyone that’s listening to really dig deep and think about whether this is something that makes sense for them, knowing that all of this potential exists. 

Jimmy Nguyen: Yeah. And we’re going to continue on. So this is the first kind of chunk of our conversation around bad trips. In the next episode, we’ll talk a little bit more, I think tactically and practically about navigating these experiences knowing that they’re somewhat inevitable if we’re really doing that inner work. 

So join us on that next episode. This wraps us up for this episode here. You can download all episodes of the Psychedelic Passage podcast. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast,  Amazon,  Spotify, IHeartRadio. Wherever you find and get your podcast. So thank you so much for joining us and we’ll see you next time!

Explore What It’s Like To Feel Connected

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