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When I was 18, I took LSD at a rave, and had a bad trip. I felt irrationally afraid and self-conscious for hours, and went to bed feeling I had permanently damaged my brain. Over the next few weeks, I felt paranoid, panicky and socially anxious. These symptoms faded but came back a few months later, and lasted for years. I was eventually diagnosed with social anxiety and PTSD. It took me five years to stop having panic attacks, a decade to regain my social confidence, and over 20 years for me to be capable of having a long-term relationship.
Was that trip ‘bad’? Yes, it robbed me of confidence, scrambled my nervous system, changed my personality and made my life a lot harder. Do I wish it had never happened? That’s a trickier question. I suspect my life would have been much easier if I had never taken psychedelics. But that adverse experience also had positive impacts. I became interested in mental health, philosophy, spirituality. I experienced ‘post-traumatic growth’, eventually.
And this is the tricky thing about defining ‘bad trips’ — how I labelled that past experience affected my life in the present. When I believed ‘I have permanently damaged my brain’, that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I decided it was my catastrophizing beliefs in the present that caused my suffering and I found a more constructive frame for the past, I started to heal.
Today I lead one of the first research projects on extended post-trip difficulties, what they’re like and what helps people who have them. I hope our work can help people in similar situations to the one I found myself at 18. We’re at an exciting moment when several psychedelic drugs are set to become legalized, whether for recreational, spiritual or therapeutic use, and millions of people could try them. Almost one in five British people are currently on anti-depressants, so the potential market for psychedelic therapy is huge. But how risky are psychedelics? What should people know before taking them? These basic questions are still being debated.
The least risky drugs out there?