Difficult experiences can happen on psychedelics.
Here's our guide to working through them.
Here's our guide to working through them.
Having a bad trip is a common fear that keeps people from partaking in psychedelics. While a difficult experience can’t always be avoided, there are some skills and principles we can learn to help minimize the discomfort and make the best of a hard time.
What Is a Bad Trip?
First thing to point out is labelling an experience as “bad” can be misleading, as difficult experiences are often necessary for our healing and growth. While the experience may be uncomfortable, the outcome is often positive.
Psychedelics can bypass our inner gatekeepers, the parts that suppress feelings which are avoided for good reason. With this opening comes an opportunity to process unconscious or repressed experiences, leading to more integration and freedom. But the process isn’t easy and can be painful, overwhelming, and disorienting.
Techniques and Principles To Get You Through
Find an Anchor
An anchor keeps a ship from drifting with the winds and currents, and similarly we can find our own anchor to keep us from getting lost in chaotic experiences. The breath is a great anchor. It’s consistent and grounds us in our physical body. If we’re grappling with difficult thoughts or feelings, the breath gives us something more neutral to focus on. Keeping our attention on our breath can also help us tune into our body and slow things down.
While the breath is a powerful and effective anchor, it may not be the best choice for everyone. Some people can actually become more anxious by focusing on the breath. If you’re experiencing more rigidity or starting to forget how to breathe, then try shifting your focus elsewhere. Feeling into the hands or feet can be reassuring, because it also brings us out of our heads, but into parts of the body that likely feel more stable (most difficult emotions are experienced primarily in the torso).
Another option is a mantra or visualization. You can use a traditional mantra or make something up on the spot (“I’m OK” is a good one). For a visualization, you can imagine a loving presence looking over you, or just imagine yourself in a safe space. Find whatever image helps to bring ease.
Tune into your breath. Make your breaths nice and deep, breathing into your belly.
And now relax the breath, allowing it to feel totally natural.
Find one area to focus on. It can be the sensation of the air passing through your nostrils, or the expansion and contraction in your chest or abdomen.
Rest your attention in this place. When you get distracted, come back.
Inevitably thoughts and sensations will come up, and that’s ok, just allow them to do so but keep your primary attention focused on your anchor as much as possible.
If your breath is not natural, if it feels uneasy or constricted, shift your focus to your hands or feet. Just feel into the sensations present, bringing your attention back whenever it wonders.
Our bodies have a built in fight/flight response to threats. When we perceive something as dangerous, our fight/flight response is triggered. This situation calls for a shift in relationship. What are we resisting? What are we afraid to experience? Whatever it is, we cannot fight it or run away from it, so when we are unable to escape we only have one option: welcome our experience, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
Accepting Pain and Discomfort
We are wired to seek comfort and avoid discomfort, but the reality is that resisting uncomfortable experiences makes them more difficult. It puts us in a negative feedback loop where the more we resist, the more uncomfortable the experience gets, which in turn makes us more frantic and uneasy. Our ability to survive a bad trip depends on our ability to be able to be ok with sitting in discomfort.
When confronted with a painful experience, we have two options. The first is to shift our attention, which can be done by focusing on our anchor. When we do this, we are not trying to get rid of the pain, we are not fighting with it, we are just allowing it to be there as it is — but it is not our object of focus. We can notice it, feel the discomfort, but keep our attention focused as best we can on our anchor. When the sensations are overwhelming, this is the advised practice, coming back to your anchor.
The other approach is to actually focus on the pain. To open up to the sensations and allow yourself to feel them.
Here’s a practice for that:
Being with Pain and Discomfort
Start by noticing any physical tension that’s resisting the feeling of pain. Do your best to soften this as much as possible, and then allow whatever tension is left to be there.
Tune into the pain. Zoom in on it with your attention. Notice where the centre of it feels to be, where it’s emanating from. Be with the sensation right here, allowing yourself to feel it as bestas possible.
Zoom out a bit and feel the whole area, notice where the pain seems to end, where the edges of it are. Stay with this for alittle bit, being curious about the sensations, and feeling their vibratory quality.
Zoom out some more and notice the space around the pain, the space all around you. Notice that this pain is occurring in space, and do your best to be aware of the pain as well as the space around itwhere the pain doesn’t exist.
The first thing we need to challenge is the belief that pain and discomfort are bad and need to be avoided. A lot of this is rooted in our perception of control. When we feel in control of our experience, we can endure a lot of pain. Athletes are a great example of this. Any serious runner has faced intense pain and discomfort and overcome them. A runner knows they can stop at any time, and knowing this gives them the sense of safety to push themself to their limits and endure intense pain, pain that could be considered torture if it wasn’t for the fact of them being in control.
Our ability to survive difficult experiences goes hand in hand with our ability to be ok with not being in control. Can we just accept our experience as it is? Can we surrender to what is unfolding? This is a practice, we may not be any good at accepting difficult experiences as they are, but we can practice and get better as we go. This takes awareness and intention, noticing where we’re resisting and softening in that space. How fully can you meet your experience as it is, without trying to change it?
Letting go of control is all in noticing your attitude and expectations. Can you notice your expectations? What is your attitude? We have a tendency to like things or dislike them, to say yes or no to experience. Letting go of control could be as simple as saying yes to our experience, regardless of what it is.
You can try this as a practice, just saying yes, slowly and gently, to every thought and sensation. Not trying to push anything away, not trying to change anything at all, just saying yes to each moment, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
One of the central ideas in Buddhism is that suffering comes from identification with our experience. We say things like I am uncomfortable, I am angry, I am confused, I am hurting. We are equating the “I” with the experience. When we look closer though, we realize that we are not those things, they are simply experiences we are having.
When we shift our perspective and notice our experiences without identifying with them, we create more space and are less reactive. The goal here is to shift our identification from the experience to the awareness which is observing the experience.
When we practice this shift in identity, our discomfort is less threatening as we can observe that although we are experiencing something difficult, our awareness is intact. It is said that there are plenty of problems in awareness, but not with awareness itself.
First, notice the difficult sensations, the ones that are grabbing your attention. And now shift your focus and notice the part of you that is observing these sensations, the awareness behind your experience.
Notice that the sensations are uncomfortable, but when we drop back and notice the part that’s paying attention, there is no discomfort there. Awareness itself is always ok.
We are just dropping back and noticing that we can observe experience, and the part that is observing is the real us, not the sensations or thoughts.
Keep coming back to this place of observation, reinforcing the Self with the observer.
Another element that can carry us through a bad trip is a sense of it’s meaning. Humans can endure just about anything so long as we find meaning in it. Viktor Frankl, who survived two years in Nazi concentration camps and lost his family in the process, famously said “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Prisoners of war survive torture and inhumane conditions in hopes of being reunited with loved ones. Women survive the pain of birthing to give new life. If we can see the value in a difficult trip, it can shift the entire experience.
What often happens on a difficult trip is that repressed feelings surface. We repress feelings because they are uncomfortable, we’d rather not feel them. Psychedelics can open the floodgates and overwhelm us with these long avoided experiences. If we can see this as an opportunity to process and heal these parts, an opportunity to face what we’ve long been avoiding, then our experience can become healing, insightful, and meaningful.
Faith is trusting that in the end, you will be ok. For some people it’s religious or mystical, there may be a trust in things unfolding for a higher purpose. This can help carry one through, but faith doesn’t need to always be metaphysical. Faith can just be knowing that psychedelics are generally safe and only last a few hours. Faith can be trusting that whatever happens, you’ll be able to endure. In Buddhism they teach the fundamental principle of impermanence, that things are always changing, and that nothing lasts forever. On one hand this is a warning against getting attached to things that surely will not last (like comfort). On the other hand this insight is liberating, as it reassures us that also our pain and discomfort also will not last.
While many techniques are explored here, what’s most important is to focus on the one or few that feel most available to you. We are all different, and different approaches will have different impacts on different people and in different situations.
The approaches that are most effective can also change over time, so keep an open mind and keep exploring. If there is one thing to remember in all of this, one takeaway to keep in mind, it’s to trust your own intuitive sense of what’s best for you.
We may not always act in the ways that are best for us, and during a difficult psychedelic experience it’s not uncommon to get confused and spiral into negative thoughts and emotions. Remember that even in these times, there is some part of us that knows how to make it through. Look for that inner guidance and trust what comes.
Even when you feel lost, confused, and overwhelmed, remember that this is a temporary experience and that you will come back to a more grounded place in time, renewing a trust in yourself that you can survive this.
Guest article by
Mental health counsellor