In a 2021 paper published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers describe how psychedelic users turn their challenging trips into valuable experiences through the particular narratives users construct around their bad trips. One crucial finding was that many users identified a lack of competence as the cause of their negative psychedelic experiences. This article will first unpack this idea and then expand on it, offering examples of specific regrets that psychonauts may have about previous trips, which led them to states of distress, or at least non-ideal outcomes.
Explaining Bad Trips Through the Lens of Competence
The authors of the 2021 study cite many stories offered by users about their bad trips. One theme that emerged was how such experiences could be avoided. In this vein, many participants pointed to a set of rules one should follow, and if not followed, could be blamed for negative experiences arising. Users applied this narrative to both themselves and others. For example, Christina, who is in her early thirties and has had extensive experience with psychedelics, described an episode with a friend who felt adverse psychedelic effects. While she empathised with her friend, she believed he behaved stupidly:
Context is everything. It has to do with set and setting and with the dosing of psychedelics. Let’s say it is the first time you take LSD and you take 500 micrograms. You are at a random club in Oslo, or at an after-party somewhere with people you don’t know. Then it can be a tremendously traumatizing experience. I wouldn’t [laughing], I mean, nobody would recommend that for anyone.
In addition, Nicholas, in his early thirties, explained:
Taking mushrooms can be overwhelming. However, if you meditate a lot, then you’ll learn the necessary skill to observe what’s happening, and not get stuck in it. That’s the key to surviving intense psychedelic experiences, you just have to breathe, focus on the breath and observe everything without judgement. I mean, imagine how much the brain can produce based on everything that you’ve ever experienced. That could be beautiful things, but also terrible, horrifying and ugly stuff.
The authors note, “The implication was that a bad trip was a result of a lack of competence. Not respecting the importance of “set and setting” was deemed immature and irresponsible.” Psychonauts may try to distinguish between users who are in control and responsible and those who are not. “The narrative work such stories do is first to move responsibility from the drug to the dysfunctional users,” say the researchers.
Not all bad trips, however, are blamed on one’s own incompetence and responsibility; sometimes, the substance itself or the influence of other incompetent users are blamed. Nonetheless, bad trip stories focusing on personal incompetence – not being responsible, not following tried-and-tested psychedelic wisdom – are very commonplace, and it may in some cases be a way to show loyalty to the drug in question. “Blaming oneself to “defend” the drug, on the other hand, may indicate a more particular characteristic of psychedelic drug users who are highly committed to their drug of choice,” state the authors. Other users may reject the term ‘bad trip’ altogether, believing it to apply only to the experiences of incompetent users. Frank, an experienced user in his early fifties, told the interviewers:
“I’ve never even been close to experiencing something like that [a bad trip], because I totally dive into it. If you don’t do that, you will hold back a lot of things, question things and then you’ll create friction, which makes it worse. I don’t really have any underlying issues in my mind that suddenly appear. I haven’t repressed anything.”
Common Regrets About Previous Psychedelic Experiences
It is possible that many psychedelic users will regret having had a particular psychedelic experience. However, this kind of regret may be deemed not only pointless (since there’s no turning back the clock) but also counterproductive to learning valuable lessons. Rather than wish the experience didn’t happen, psychonauts may try to turn their feeling of regret into a form of investigation: identifying why the trip was, or turned, negative and how to avoid that happening again in the future.
Having regrets is often framed in negative terms, as a pointless and self-flagellating mental habit. But it is only futile and harmful if such regrets become ruminative and you focus on regret and self-blame for long periods of time, and recurringly. Regret can be healthy and a sign of maturity if mistakes are identified and a resolution is made not to repeat them, and then you just move on and don’t let those mistakes become an obsessive form of regret.
Let’s now turn to some of the most common regrets psychonauts have about their past psychedelic experiences.
Taking Psychedelics at Too Young an Age
Some psychonauts feel they had their first trip, or got into psychedelics, at too young an age. Many people of course will have positive, fascinating, and revelatory experiences with psychedelics as adolescents, but others may feel this was not an ideal trip to profoundly alter one’s consciousness. As an adolescent, your mindset and stage in life are completely different compared to when you’re in your 20s and 30s.
It’s normal for teenagers to be more reckless and careless about drug use and not always be clued up about essential harm reduction practices (although the proliferation of educational materials online, and from popular YouTubers like PsychedSubstance, can help combat this).
Along with less preparedness, one’s sense of self may also be more insecure. Self-esteem, security, personal confidence, social confidence, and feelings of resilience tend to grow with age, so going into a trip without a strong and secure sense of self can be another reason why it can become challenging and difficult to handle.
In addition, one might be more closed off and less open about one’s experiences and emotions at this age, as the drive to appear ‘cool’ can be powerful, which means that if you do encounter personal distress when tripping with friends, you may not open up about it and seek support (others may not also be mature enough at this age to offer the emotional support you need).
Not Being Rested
Many regrets related to psychedelic use centre around issues with set and setting. One of these is not being rested before a trip, especially when a strong dose is taken. I have previously looked at the various ways sleep deprivation can impact a psychedelic experience, and while some people may suffer no ill effects as a result, or may even feel being tired benefits and boosts their experience, it’s not surprising at all that not sleeping enough the night before a trip can lead to a more negative and overwhelming experience.
Psychonauts may trip while sleep-deprived for a variety of reasons: being young and reckless (or just being reckless), tripping at festivals in the context of lots of drinking and poly-drug use (so not sleeping enough/well), suffering from insomnia, being too nervous/excited the night before, having few opportunities to trip and not wanting to skip a potential experience, or perhaps simply not appreciating the effects of fatigue or restfulness on the quality of a psychedelic experience.
If you think about how different you feel tired compared to rested; how frequently it’s like being two different people – if you were to amplify the feelings of the former tired person with psychedelics, there’s a higher chance of experiencing distress and discomfort (and perhaps wanting to sleep but not being able to, once in the throes of psychedelia). It’s always better to ensure as restful a sleep as possible the night before a planned trip.
Going in With a Negative State of Mind
I have previously explored the concept of the ‘paradox of set’: tripping can sometimes lift you out of negative moods and ruts of thinking, but other times it can only worsen them. Nonetheless, looking back on past psychedelic experiences, one may feel that one’s personal circumstances, either physical or emotional, made tripping at the time an unwise decision. This might involve being physically under the weather or experiencing acute stress, anxiety, sadness, or anger due to a recent argument, breakup, loss of job, or death of a loved one. If you’re experiencing a sudden, recent, or intense degree of negative emotion, then there’s always a risk of a psychedelic just amplifying that. Embarking on a psychedelic journey while hungover or experiencing a comedown from another drug may be another factor that can lead to negative experiences.
Taking other drugs along with a particular psychedelic can also lead to some distressing experiences. I have written about how combining psychedelics with cannabis (a popular combo) is a common cause of bad trips, but there are many other drugs that may lead to some destabilising experiences, including classic psychedelics (e.g. LSD, psilocybin, DMT), non-classic psychedelics (e.g. MDMA and ketamine), alcohol, stimulants, dissociatives, and deliriants. While these drugs on their own may have desirable effects, when combined, the result can be unpleasant. Some drugs can also potentiate the effects of a psychedelic, leading to perhaps an unexpectedly intense experience.
Psychonauts may, therefore, have regrets about specific drug combinations and decide to avoid them in the future, or at least not at the same dosages. They might also feel (for justifiable reasons) that a certain combination was irresponsible and dangerous.
Tripping With the Wrong People Around
This is an extremely common regret that psychonauts have. Many trips turn sour because of the influence of other people, not because of individual incompetence (except, perhaps, making the decision to trip around those people in the first place). There are many types of people who will be ill-suited to you having a smooth, comfortable, and grounded psychedelic experience:
- Complete strangers
- People you don’t know that well
- Big groups of people (many of whom you may like, but the size of the group can make the trip feel overstimulating and chaotic)
- People you consider friends but who may not be true friends (they won’t have your back when you’re in need of help, for instance)
- People who you know can be untrustworthy or unpredictable
- People who think it’s funny to mess with you and try to confuse you when you’re tripping
- People who hold highly judgemental, fearful, and stigmatising opinions about psychedelics and those who use them
- Genuine friends who are simply not prepared or equipped to act as a sober trip sitter
- People you’re trying to act sober around, such as your parents
- Fellow trippers who don’t respect your wish to navigate your experience in your own way, such as having alone time if you feel like it
- People whose preferences for tripping misalign with your own. Some people might want a purely recreational and social experience, while you may want time for quiet and inner exploration. There can also be mismatches in terms of choice of setting, music, and activities.
The Wrong Setting
Another reason psychedelic experiences can become challenging, which psychonauts come to regret, is the choice of setting. Reflecting on past experiences, it’s common to wish that one had a certain experience in a more quiet, safe, comfortable, and clean setting. Having the entire journey inside, at home, or deciding to go into the city and be amongst the general public, may be other reasons why the trip felt uncomfortable, or at the very least, not as fulfilling as it could have been. One may wish that one had the experience in a natural setting, at least for part of the trip, as this is often associated with an increased connection to nature and heightened positive emotions.
Other settings can also be quite chaotic, such as raves and festivals, and while these settings (if the music is ideal) can lead to positive experiences, many psychonauts find that a strong dose of a psychedelic can easily lead to overwhelm in such an environment. Regarding music, this can be another aspect of setting, and the powerful influence of music on the visual and emotional components of a psychedelic journey means that some music choices can feel regrettable. On the other hand, this can lead to insights about what kinds of music work best for the experience, and which ones should be avoided in the future.
How Psychedelic Experiences Could Have Turned Out Better
Another kind of regret psychonauts might have is not related to why trips became challenging but why they might not have turned out as fruitful as they could have. There are many practices that can help you to get the most from your psychedelic experience and not doing some of them may lead to some profound experiences but with few insights and lessons, and a lack of persisting benefits.
These practices can fall under the concept of ‘psychedelic competence’ and may include:
- Meditating before the journey
- Eating well before the journey, including during the days and weeks leading up to it
- Writing down some notes during the journey
- Journalling about the experience as it’s winding down and in the days, weeks, and months that follow
- Taking at least a day off after the experience to rest and process what happened
- Taking a day off before the day of the journey, if possible
- Seeking a form of integration support – be that a therapist, coach, or integration circle – which could have been helpful in the days and weeks following the experience
Learning From Imperfect Tripping
There will never be a point at which you can trip ‘perfectly’. That would be an unrealistic and unobtainable goal to aim for. But what every psychonaut can do, in order to keep themselves safe and have smoother and more fulfilling experiences, is keep certain principles and practices in mind before, during, and after their trips.
The point is not to reach a state where you do everything perfectly and therefore will have a perfect trip. Again, the former can’t be achieved, but second, the latter will never happen. There could always be something you wish you did differently or something about the experience you wish wasn’t (or was) present.
When one receives psychedelic wisdom – meaningful messages and insights during a psychedelic experience – it can feel like these are meant for one’s life in general. But often, one may fail to apply this wisdom to the psychedelic state itself, which, after all, is part of one’s life. In this respect, if common psychedelic wisdom teaches us to live more present-mindedly, to give up the neurotic habits of perfectionism and rumination, and embrace our imperfections, then this applies to tripping too.
Mistakes related to previous trips, whether major or minor, should not be dwelled on. To reiterate, having some feeling of regret can be productive so long as it serves its short- and long-term purpose: allowing us to pinpoint where something went wrong and integrating this as a lesson that can be applied in the future (as a form of knowledge, and not as an event that becomes a source of self-denigration).
Finally, the most common regrets of psychonauts that I have outlined should act as a brief blueprint for how to have more positive psychedelic experiences. Avoiding (or making) a simple and easy decision can be all it takes to make the difference between a challenging experience and a positive one.