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Navigating Challenging Journeys
Why the "bad trip" is misleading anti-drug propaganda, how to navigate challenges, plus a free support resource
Last year, I lived through what one can only describe as a full-body exorcism during an Ayahuasca ceremony.
For six hours straight, I found myself in a death loop, cycling through the different ways one can die. Suffocating, melting, drowning, you name it. Every fiber of my being was penetrated with immeasurable discomfort as I was crying and screaming. I thought I wasn’t going to make it. Multiple helpers had me pinned down in an effort to console me, unsuccessfully.
I did not have a “bad trip”.
In fact, I believe there’s no such thing as a bad trip. There are challenging experiences, yes, but that’s not the same.
Most people are scared of psychedelics because they’re afraid something like this will happen to them.
Today we’ll talk about why bad trips are a myth, what may happen instead, and how you can navigate challenges during a journey.
Why You Don’t Need To Fear the Illusive “Bad Trip”
Culture has deeply ingrained fear and skepticism into how we view drugs, specifically, psychedelics, which we fear might make us “crazy”.
For the most part, the “bad trip” is misleading anti-drug propaganda. It’s a residue from Nixon’s War On Drugs. The War On Drugs that was not a war on drugs but a war on people, namely people of color and hippies. As one of Nixon’s advisors admitted in an interview published in 2006, “did we know that we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
When we look to science, we’ll find that risks are minuscule compared to the potential benefits.
The probability of lingering effects such as flashbacks, psychosis, or suicidal attempts is extremely low, as researchers already established in the 60s based on a review of 25,000 LSD administrations.
When you undergo any surgery, you accept that, albeit unlikely, something can always go wrong. The same is true for psychedelics, which are mental surgery.
As with all treatments, you accept that there is a risk-reward profile.
Not to mention the decades of research showing that psychiatric drugs, the gold standard for mental health care, are not only insufficiently effective but can also harm patients in the long run. Psychedelics, on the other hand, continue to prove long-term improvements in well-being well beyond administration.
There truly is little to fear.
Psychedelics Can Act as a Mirror, and Sometimes, You Won’t Like What You See
While fear is redundant, respect is appropriate.
Journeys can be challenging.
Psychedelics act in many different ways. They show you patterns in your life. They help you process memories and traumas of the past. They disable your ego momentarily. They invite you to experience the reality of consciousness.
They can also act as mirrors.
The term psychedelic comes from the Greek language and translates to “mind-manifesting”. What manifests is not something contained in the substance itself, but something in your own mind.
Sometimes, psychedelics will show you things you don’t want to see.
It’s understandable that you want to look away when these things come up.
It’s not a pleasant experience. You don’t want to see those parts because they're emotionally charged, they cause you disgust, fear, or shame.
Yet, as psychonauts learn quickly, the pain they cause in your subconscious, often over years, far outweighs the discomfort of facing them in the present moment.
The universe, the puppet master behind psychedelic drugs, is sneaky though.
Sometimes, it will reflect back things in coded language. It isn’t always obvious that what you’re seeing relates back to you. So, when you don’t like what you see, it’s tempting to dismiss it as some external evil, something the drug created, a bad trip.
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How To Handle Scary or Challenging Experiences
Psychedelics need to be approached with respect because, while they don’t produce bad trips, they can produce challenging trips.
It can get scary, dark, or painful. My six-hour death loop was certainly the most terrifying psychological experience I’ve ever endured.
I learned the hard way that when you encounter a challenging experience, the worst thing you can do is to try to run away from it.
Resisting will, with absolute certainty, prolong your suffering. Everything is coming up to teach you something, and if you look away, you won’t be able to learn your lesson. Psychedelics are stubborn. They will continue to push and push until you get it.
As they say in Buddhism, pain multiplied by resistance equals suffering.
I was suffering in my death loop because I was so absorbed by my pain that I couldn’t let myself experience what it resulted in: being held. When I let myself be held the following night the moment the discomfort started creeping up again, everything shifted. I learned my lesson.
You need to accept that everything that’s coming up is coming up in your favor.
The monster’s purpose is not to torment but to teach, as veteran psychedelic therapist William Richards notes.
In his book, he cites the example of a woman who, during an LSD-assisted therapy session, suddenly jumps up because she sees a snake in an empty seat across from her. Her instinct is to run. Instead, Richards tells her to stay put and look the snake into the eyes. As the patient does as instructed, the snake transforms into her mother.
This is a perfect example of how psychedelics work and how to navigate them.
When scary shit comes up, the only thing to do is to go deeper into whatever is arising with curiosity and without judgment.
Surrender Is a Practice You Can Learn
Trust, for most of us, isn’t in our nature. Culture raises us to be afraid and skeptical.
Psychedelics require trust. It’s understandable that this takes some time to adjust to.
As Richards argues, however, navigating psychedelic journeys is a skill that can be practiced. Anyone can learn if they have the correct instructions.
To some people, surrender may come naturally, but I certainly wasn’t one of them. Control was my primary coping mechanism all my life.
Yet, I learned. If I can, everyone can.
Now, I’m convinced that the more triggering, the better.
You face what you think will kill you, except you find it won’t.
Every trigger is an invitation to grow and evolve.
Some reflections to ponder this week:
What beliefs do you hold about “bad trips”? Where do those beliefs come from?
What are you most terrified of? What would be the worst experience you could possibly have during a journey and why? Do you see how that experience could potentially be therapeutic in any way?
Where in your life do you currently practice surrender? How can you apply that experience to navigating inner journeys with trust?
Comment or reply privately to me to share your answers. If you let me know what’s on your mind, I can better tailor future content to your needs.
If you have any lingering fear, I recommend reading “Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics & Religious experiences”, which will likely diminish it. Richards is one of the researchers spearheading the work at Johns Hopkins University. He has decades of experience leading patients through psychedelic therapy and shares anecdotal journeys to illustrate its therapeutic potential throughout his book.
There’s also the Fireside Project, a free psychedelic peer support hotline. If you’re ever struggling during or after a journey, you can call the hotline to talk to a peer who will guide you through your challenges with empathy and compassion. It’s a fantastic first line of defense for harm reduction.
That’s all this week. Any questions on top of your mind? Comment or reply and let me know! As always, please share if you know someone who might benefit from this.