Confession: I’ve never done mushrooms or any other psychedelic drug. The idea of hallucinating is terrifying to me, and the possibility of a bad trip is too much for me to handle. But I’ve always been intrigued by the alleged upsides: the euphoria, the opening of the mind, the out-of-body experiences. Plus, plenty of successful creators—from Steve Jobs to Susan Sarandon—have said psychedelics changed their life for the better. All of which makes me wonder: Is the risk of tripped up trip worth the reward?
Lucky for me, a new paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology addresses that very question.
For the paper, researchers from the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at John’s Hopkins University School of Medicine recruited 1,993 participants who had previously used mushrooms containing the psychoactive agent psilocybin and experienced a bad trip. Specifically, they asked participants to talk about the worst trip of their life in hopes of learning how these trips gone wrong might affect their mental well-being in the long term.
Of the nearly 2,000 participants, 89% were white, 78% were male, 51% had a college or graduate degree, and 93% had used psilocybin more than two times—which basically jibes with the stereotype of the hacky sack-playing, beanie-wearing, shroom user.
The participants were interviewed for an hour about their worst trip, the dosage they had taken, how challenging the experience was, how they feel now, whether they would do it again, and whether or not the trip changed their personal well being. The researchers also posed an open-ended question at the end, which asked participants to describe their psychedelic experience in their own words.
The results of the survey are a resounding, "it was so worth it, man."
Most participants reported that their bad trip was one of the "top 10 most psychologically difficult or challenging experiences of their lives," and nearly 40% said it was in the top five most challenging. Eleven percent said it was the single most challenging experience ever.
And yet, despite these psychological challenges, participants did not regret their bad trip. In fact, 84% said they benefitted from the experience, 34% and 31% said this same trip was among the top five single most “personally meaningful” or “spiritually significant" experiences of their life, respectively. Not only that, the more challenging the trip was, the more benefits participants seemed to get out of it. "It was so beautiful, dude," one of them probably said.
As the authors write, their data “show a consistent pattern of effects, with personal meaning, spiritual significance, and increases in well-being all positively and significantly related to difficulty of experience." This is somewhat surprising: As the authors explain in the study, this bad trip/good experience link is actually common in the psychedelic experiences they witness in the lab (yes, there are research labs in which people trip on mushrooms #science):
These counterintuitive findings are consistent with clinical observations of psychedelic psychotherapists who have reported that, during a psychedelic session, the resolution of psychologically challenging experiences may result in attribution of meaning, spiritual significance, and increased life satisfaction sometimes described as catharsis.
As Susan Sarandon once told The Daily Beast of her mushroom trips, "It does remind you of your space in the universe—your place in the universe—and reframe things for you. I think you can have some very profound experiences."
Profound indeed—a staggering 76% of participants reported an increase in current well-being and life satisfaction as a result of their psychedelic experience. (And again, this boost came from bad trips. Imagine if they were good?)
However, big risks can come with big consequences—for a small set of participants, the experience was decidedly not groovy. Eight percent said the experience directly resulted in a decreased sense of well being and happiness. While these reports were much less common, they weren’t negligible. Even more alarming, 7.6% of participants reported seeking treatment for psychological symptoms that showed up after their bad trip.
One of those participants said they had no prior psychological issues before taking mushrooms, but reported severe depersonalization following the bad trip, along with disturbing hallucinations and extreme confusion. They were placed on antipsychotic drugs and later diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Another participant reported paranoia, agoraphobia, severe social withdrawal, and mental confusion following the bad trip and reported receiving a later diagnoses of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. In both cases, the bad trip was associated with the onset of symptoms.
The researchers note that the bad reactions recounted in the interviews were much worse than what they’ve observed in the lab, writing, "The rates and severity of both acute and enduring problems shown in the survey are notably higher than those we and others have observed in laboratory." The reason, they theorize, might be because, in the lab, participants are closely monitored and in a controlled environment.
So, the takeaway? Sure, magic mushrooms have the ability to our minds in extraordinary ways—you just have to decide if opening your mind to the powers of the universe is worth the risk.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.