Making “bad trips” good: How users of psychedelics narratively transform challenging trips into valuable experiences

This interview study (n=50) of Norwegian psychedelic users found that narrative techniques helped them deal with/recontextualize ‘bad’ trips.

Abstract

Background We study the significance of stories about bad trips among users of psychedelics. Drawing on narrative theory, we describe the characteristics of such stories and explore the work they do.

Methods In-depth qualitative interviews with 50 Norwegian users of psychedelics.

Results Almost all participants had frightening experiences when using psychedelics and many described these as bad trips. The key feature of a bad trip was a feeling of losing oneself or going crazy, or ego dissolution. Most users said that these experiences could be avoided by following certain rules, based on tacit knowledge in the subcultures of users. Possessing such knowledge was part of symbolic boundary work that distinguished between drug culture insiders and outsiders. Some also rejected the validity of the term bad trip altogether, arguing that such experiences reflected the lack of such competence. Finally, and most importantly, most participants argued that unpleasant experiences during bad trips had been beneficial and had sometimes given them deep existential and life-altering insights.

Conclusion Bad trip experiences are common among users of psychedelics. Such experiences are often transformed into valuable experiences through storytelling. Bad trip narratives may be a potent coping mechanism for users of psychedelics in non-controlled environments, enabling them to make sense of frightening experiences and integrate these into their life stories. Such narrative sense-making, or narrative work, facilitates the continued use of psychedelics, even after unpleasant experiences with the drugs.”

Authors: Liridona Gashi, Sveinung Sandberg & Willy Pedersen

Notes

The challenging experiences were taken from the perspective of the participants in the study, but the study does mention the Challenging Experience Questionnaire (Barrett et al., 2016) that dives deeper into the different aspects of a challenging experience (bad trip).

“Almost all participants had experienced frightening bad rips. However, looking back, they were convinced that these were important experiences, resulting in deep insights. Although sometimes hesitant to use the term itself, bad trips were typically narrated as valuable, sometimes as an important turning point in a larger life history.”

This quote summarizes best what is presented (with quotes from participants) in the article. It highlights how the stories we tell ourselves help make sense of our world, the same goes for a (challenging) psychedelic experience.

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