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Bad Trips

Depiction of a teen girl experiencing negative effects of a dissociative drug  

Taking street drugs usually causes a pleasant high. Depending on the type of drug taken, getting high might make a person feel very happy or have hallucinations, feel more energized or more relaxed, change the way people or objects look, heighten the senses, or otherwise change a person’s perceptions of themselves or their environment.

Sometimes, teens experience a “bad trip,” where a drug causes negative, rather than positive, effects. Stories of bad trips tell us that things that normally feel good are turned on their head and can leave a person feeling terrified or depressed. Even drugs that produce a milder high aren’t necessarily safe — people can even get a bad trip from marijuana.

What Is a Bad Trip?

Teens who have only experienced positive effects from drugs may wonder, what is a bad trip? Mental effects that people might experience during a bad trip include feeling angry, depressed, restless or paranoid. Hallucinogen overdose is a common cause of bad trips. If someone has too much LSD, DMT or mushrooms, they can have terrifying hallucinations. A person’s mood is often reflected onto their environment when they are on drugs, so if someone is in a bad state of mind then their world might seem like a harsh, sad or scary place.

What Causes Bad Trips?

Researchers who study the science of drugs have found out a lot about how most substances work. Usually, taking a drug changes a person’s brain chemistry by raising or lowering the levels of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. This can lead to both good and bad effects on the body and mind.

What causes bad trips? Often, these occur when someone has taken too much of a drug, and the drug floods their brain, causing more chemical changes than their brain can easily handle. Brain signals may be too overactive or may be shut down, and the brain interprets these changes as something bad happening.

A person’s dose isn’t the only thing that causes a bad trip. Other factors, such as how a person feels about where they are or the people that they’re surrounded by, also seem to play a role. How a person reacts mentally to any physical drug side effects may also make a difference. Finally, teens who are already experiencing symptoms of mental illness can be more likely to have bad trips. Scientists still don’t know much about how or why each of these factors can make a difference.

Lasting Mental Effects

Many experience anxiety after a bad trip. The bad feelings that happen while on drugs may be hard to shake off. Some young people have even reported that they got PTSD from a bad acid trip. One study found that 7.6% of people who had experienced a bad trip said that they had to get treatment for psychological effects that continued to persist even once the drug wore off. Additionally, some drugs can trigger mental illness. A teen may be more likely to have a mental illness because of their genetics or home environment, but they don’t experience symptoms until something else like drug use causes changes in their brain.

What Drugs Cause a Bad Trip?

Many different types of drugs can cause bad trips. Most notorious is the bad acid trip, as drugs that cause hallucinations are some of the most likely to give people bad experiences. Hallucinogens include:

  • Acid
  • LSD
  • Mushrooms
  • PCP
  • DMT
  • Ayahuasca

Some prescription drugs can also cause hallucinations if taken in high doses, such as meclizine, diphenhydramine or atropine. When people have bad hallucinations, they can sometimes completely lose contact with reality and start to believe bizarre things. A teen can also have a bad experience with cannabis, especially if they’ve previously taken other illicit drugs. Symptoms of a bad weed trip include physical symptoms like sweating or nausea in addition to mental side effects like anxiety and paranoia.

What Can Happen During a Bad Trip?

When someone has a bad trip, they may experience:

  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Negative experiences
  • Mood swings
  • Racing thoughts
  • Disorientation
  • Loss of emotional control
  • Panic
  • Insanity
  • Feeling like they are dying
  • Suicidal thoughts

People who share their bad trip hallucinations after the fact talk about seeing blood, dead bodies, or people or objects trying to kill them. In extreme cases, people may have psychosis from a bad trip, which happens when a person sees or hears things that aren’t real or loses touch with reality.

Drugs often amplify the emotions that people are already feeling deep down. This is one reason why drug use is dangerous — people who are already feeling angry or depressed may become violent or suicidal if they take a substance and have a bad trip. Teens can be more likely to hurt themselves and others while taking drugs.

Effects of Bad Trips During the Teenage Years

Some people have reported symptoms of PTSD from a bad trip. If someone takes a mind-altering substance as a teen and has a very bad experience, they may continue to have sudden anxiety attacks and terrifying, obsessive thoughts and emotions that spring up years later.

Teenagers who take a drug even just one time can end up with Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder. HPPD causes drug flashbacks where a person feels the effects of a drug months or years after they have taken it, even if they are sober at the time. People who have this disorder may say that objects look distorted and lights seem brighter or more sparkly. They may also experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of night vision
  • Problems with memory and focus

Taking other substances, including marijuana, can make these effects worse and longer-lasting.

Dealing With Bad Trips & How to Stop One

Many teens who take hallucinogens may wonder how to stop a bad trip. Unfortunately, once a bad trip starts it’s pretty hard to get out of it, and people just have to wait for the effects to wear off. Bad trip guides include some advice that can help make symptoms more manageable:

  • Don’t take any more drugs once negative side effects or overdose symptoms start to appear
  • Change the environment by going into a different room or moving to a different location with the help of a friend
  • Make the surrounding environment a more calming place by avoiding bright or flashing lights and by turning down loud music
  • Be willing to listen to trusted friends who are trying to help

Teens who spend time around others who are using drugs may want to know how to help when someone has a bad trip. If a friend is going through a bad trip, a person might be able to assist by trying to ground them in reality. A person can remind the friend that any scary visualizations aren’t real. They can also comfort the friend by reminding them that their emotions are temporary and only happening because of the drug and that once the drug wears off the friend will feel differently about the situation.

Warning signs that the situation is getting out of control include a person experiencing overdose symptoms, becoming completely out of touch with reality or threatening to harm themselves or others. Anyone who notices these signs in a friend should call 9-1-1 to get emergency medical care. Medical professionals can give people medications that counteract the effects of whichever drug they took and provide life-saving care for any dangerous symptoms.

Preventing Future Bad Trips

The best way for a teen to avoid a bad trip is to not take a substance in the first place or to take a small dose that they know they can handle. One problem is that even if someone intends to take only a small amount of a drug, taking it will make a person less inhibited and more likely to take risks, and they will often want to take more.

Teenagers can also lower their chances of a bad trip if they avoid taking drugs while they are having mental health symptoms. Experiencing anxiety, depression or other types of mental illness can make a bad trip more likely.

While on drugs, “set and setting” matters. A set is the mindset or emotional state that someone is in while using substances. Having a positive set, or using drugs while feeling good about one’s self and others, makes them less likely to experience a bad trip. A setting refers to everything in the environment including lights, activities and sounds that are happening around the person. If someone feels overwhelmed by their setting, they can end up feeling like they are locked in a harsh, scary world.

When It’s Time to Find Help

If someone experiences bad trips and continues using the drug, this may be a sign that they are struggling to control their substance use and need to participate in a drug recovery program. If someone is worried that a friend is using drugs too often or at high doses, they should first try to talk to that friend about their drug use. If someone is clearly experiencing problems related to their drug use but denies that it’s a problem or becomes angry or defensive when people bring up the topic, they may be struggling with drug addiction. Talking to a trusted family member, teacher or another adult may also help. Rehab for teens can help a person recover before they experience long-lasting, harmful side effects.

Teens who are experiencing long-term effects, such as HPPD symptoms from a bad trip, may also need medical attention. A doctor may be able to help prescribe medications that can ease symptoms, or mental health treatment centers for teens can help young people get help for severe symptoms as well as underlying mental health disorders that may be contributing to drug use and making side effects worse.

Key Points on Bad Trips

  • A bad trip consists of overwhelming negative emotions like fear or sadness
  • Having a bad trip can cause a person to suffer from mental health symptoms years afterward
  • Help a person through a bad trip by getting them to a quieter environment and reminding them that any thoughts and feelings are related to the drug and are only temporary
  • Get emergency medical attention if someone seems to be losing touch with the real world or if they seem like they might hurt themselves or someone else
  • Rehab may be a good option for teens who struggle with controlling their drug use

Call The Next Generation Village if you think that you or a friend might be in trouble with drug use. Our team of experts can help teens break free from drug or alcohol problems.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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