Day trip to hell: A mixed methods study of challenging psychedelic experiences

This interview (n=38) and survey (n=319) study identified new themes as part of negative or challenging psychedelic experiences. Specifically, it identified fear (69%) and confusion (62%) to be a larger component than previously recognized, and ego dissolution as less central and sometimes even protective.


Background and aims This article presents a mixed methods study of challenging psychedelic experiences or β€œbad trips”, with the aim of exploring the nature and characteristics of such experiences. While challenging psychedelic experiences have been studied in previous research, the article posits that the focus of this research has been overly narrow in terms of the characteristics and etiology of these experiences, and that it would be helpful to broaden our understanding of what a challenging psychedelic trip might be and how it affects users.

Methods In the first study, respondents (N = 38) were recruited at various online fora for individual anonymous interviews via private messaging. The Cannabis and Psychedelics User Survey used for the second study was constructed on the basis of the knowledge obtained from interviews, and recruited 319 participants (median age 33; 81% male) from seven different online communities. Respondents were asked to characterize both a typical and their worst psychedelic experience, allowing for comparisons between the two and for regression analyses of associations between challenging experiences and other factors.

Results Both in interviews and in the survey, respondents reported a broader range of characteristics for challenging psychedelic experiences than what has previously been recognized in the research literature. Despite the often dramatic narratives, they were convinced that the experience had positive long-term consequences.

Conclusions The two studies found that challenging psychedelic experiences have a greater thematic range than what has previously been identified. Besides the near ubiquity of fear in these experiences, confusion was also identified as an important aspect. Meditation practice had paradoxical effects on challenging psychedelic experiences, appearing as a fruitful area for further research.”

Author: Peter G. Johnstad


Psychedelic experiences aren’t all sunshine and unicorns. A small percentage of trips can be classified as ‘bad’ or ‘challenging’. In many studies, it rarely occurs, but one recent study found that 7 out of 40 that used ayahuasca in a traditional environment had negative experiences. Still, for many such an experience is later classified as helping them grow in the long term.

The Challenging Experience Questionnaire finds that grief, fear (of death or going insane), feeling isolated, and a negative experience of ego dissolution are part of such bad trips. Another study finds that those who score high on the personality trait neuroticism, have a higher chance of having challenging experiences.

The current study argues that the definition of bad trips is still too limited. To study this, the researchers conducted interviews with 38 people and did a survey study with 319 more. They found several aspects that were overlooked by other researchers.

The full ‘bad trip’ phenomenology

  • The fear of ego dissolution was a smaller part of the experience than previously identified, some interviewees even identified it as a positive aspect of a trip
  • Fear was a larger part of the experience, with 69% of participants identifying this as part of their worst trip
  • Confusion was identified 62% of the time, a concept not previously included

Gaining new insights into your life is often a large part of a psychedelic trip. It allows a person to take a step back and look at their life from an outsider’s perspective. The current study identified this as an aspect of the bad trips. Or in other words, people didn’t like what they saw from that vantage point.

Still, this study and previous studies find that challenging experiences usually lead to positive outcomes long term. By being confronted with something one rather not sees, a person is able to resolve that problem.

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