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My friend had a ‘bad trip’ – what could I have done to help him?

A couple of weekends ago one of my close friends took a trip when we went out and got really sick. He wasn’t making any sense, seemed very frightened and kept imagining things were happening when they weren’t. He then tried to run away and it took quite a few of us to try to stop him. It seemed to last for ages and there were a few times when we were going to call an ambulance but we always managed to calm him down enough that we thought we could look after him. What should we have done? Could we have stopped this?”

It certainly sounds like your friend experienced what is known as a ‘bad trip’. A trip is a slang term for a drug experience, usually LSD or some other type of hallucinogenic drug. A hallucinogen is a substance that makes you think and feel things in a different way, i.e., after you’ve used a hallucinogen your perception is altered and you may look at your hand and think it looks larger, smaller, closer or further away than it really is, it may even start talking to you!

A ‘bad trip’ is when the pleasant effects of a drug turns into a nasty and scary experience. Usually it begins as an overwhelming feeling of anxiety but in some extreme cases the user starts to begin to see things that they are very frightened of like spiders and snakes. Bad trips usually happen for a reason. They can be caused by using more of the drug than you are used to; trying to resist the effects of the drugs because you are scared or can’t relax; being in an unpleasant environment where you don’t feel comfortable; and having problems weighing on your mind before you used the drug. Even people who have used drugs for a long time sometimes have a bad trip.

The best way to avoid a bad trip is to avoid taking a drug at all. Often a bad trip starts small and snowballs into rising feelings of anxiety, fear and paranoia. People who are having such an experience may appear withdrawn and quiet, or visibly upset or frightened. In extreme cases they may become wild and out of control. Sometimes the person may feel as if they are going insane or about to die. Sometimes they may find it difficult to breathe and it may trigger a full blown panic attack. It sounds like your friend experienced a number of these feelings.

The most important thing to remember in the midst of a bad trip is not to panic. If you someone you know is having a bad trip, here are a few things you can do to lessen the impact and make them feel more comfortable:

Change the environment – this can involve moving the person, altering the music that is playing or changing the lighting in the room. Never force anyone to do anything – remember, they are already paranoid, gently encourage them to move into another room. Don’t scare them anymore.

Reassure them that the reason they are feeling the way they do is because of what they have taken and the experience will end in time. They need to be told that they will be okay.

Let them know the time. Unfortunately one of the side effects of using hallucinogens is the distortion of time and they can feel that their bad trip is lasting forever. Letting them know how much time has really passed is extremely helpful and reassuring.

Help them to relax by breathing with them. The fear that many people feel during a bad trip is often made worse by tensing up and trying to resist. If you can get them to ‘let go’ and relax it will make them feel better. Concentrating on good breathing technique will relax them and give them something to focus on.

Never leave them alone. It is important for them to know that they are not by themselves, at the same time, make sure that they have lots of space so they do not feel cramped in.

Most importantly, if you ever feel, even for a second, that you are not able to deal with the situation call for help. Paramedics know exactly how to deal with a person who is tripping and handing over the situation to them is absolutely the best thing to do… as I’m sure you’re aware, your friend could have really hurt himself in the state he was in. If you’re worried about the police being involved because your friend has taken an illegal drug, remember the police don’t even know you have called for an ambulance. The only reason they would attend is if the paramedics ask for them to be there, usually due to the threat of violence.

First published: May 2015

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