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What is a bad trip? 5 Questions for Jules Evans of The Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project
Evans discusses the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project and what he and his co-researchers hope to learn from the data they collect.
Jules Evans grew up in London’s rave scene in the 1990s. He had his first LSD trip at 15, then experimented with MDMA and mushrooms. At 18, he had a very bad trip on LSD. Over the next five years, his mental health worsened; he worried that he’d permanently damaged his brain. Eventually, he was diagnosed with PTSD and social anxiety. With support from his family, he saw a psychiatrist, who treated him with a form of psychotherapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR. It didn’t help. He found a support group for social anxiety that used a different psychological treatment known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
Over time, Evans recovered, and developed his interests in psychology and philosophy. He wrote a book called Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations that explores how CBT was influenced by Greek philosophy, and another called The Art of Losing Control, a blend of memoir and interviews about people’s ecstatic experiences. In the late 2010s, he became interested in psychedelics again, but noticed how little research there was about negative psychedelic experiences like the one he had.
In 2022, he teamed up with a team of professors and researchers to launch the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project, which is currently conducting online survey research through the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom. The Microdose spoke with Evans about the study’s methods and what they hope to learn from the data they collect.
What kinds of adverse events are you looking at?
We’re looking at two things: first of all, what kinds of difficulties do people get into, and how long do they last? Those could last a few days, or a few years. There has been some research on challenging trips, but very little on extended difficulties, so we’re trying to map that terrain.
There’s also been little, if any, empirical research on what people find helpful after difficult psychedelic experiences. We want to look at that. So we raised some funding and started the study last September.
Who’s funding this?
There are two private donors — neither wants to be public, and neither is a well-known psychedelic philanthropist. Many studies currently are funded by private philanthropy; here in the UK, none of the big government research councils fund psychedelics. As you can imagine, with researching difficult trips, some private philanthropists and companies might be wary of that — they don’t want to harm the investment prospects or push for medicalization and legalization. But our point of view is that the more you know about possible side effects and how best to deal with them, the more you’re supporting the long-term viability of this field. Industry is leaving itself more exposed to public backlash by a lack of research and support for people who may have bad experiences. If it’s taboo to talk about those experiences, we’re exacerbating the possibilities for abuse, and exacerbating the stigma associated with having negative reactions.
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The study has just started: what have you learned so far, and what’s next?
First, we’ve launched a survey asking people: have you ever had a trip that led to difficulties or life challenges longer than a day? Could you tell us a bit about those conditions? How long did they last, and what have you found helpful or unhelpful in dealing with those difficulties? The survey is still open, and we’re starting analysis later this month, but we’ve already received 600 responses, which is more responses than we expected.
In the spring, we plan to write a paper describing the initial responses and from that, we will begin to generate hypotheses that we might want to test. We are already seeing some interesting results; two-fifths of respondents say their difficulties lasted longer than a year, and a fifth say they lasted longer than three years. We also plan to select some participants out of the 600-plus respondents for one-on-one interviews.
Are there kinds of negative experiences that are particularly common?
Upon first look, it seems like there are different trends among shorter term effects — up to 3 months — and in the longer term, like a year and beyond.
Anna Lutkajtis, a researcher on this study, and I just published a paper looking at short term integration challenges in people after a three-day legal psilocybin truffle retreat in the Netherlands. In the shorter term, people report things like feeling disconnected when they return home from a retreat, a sort of post-ecstatic blues. Some also experience ontological uncertainty: a continuing sense of wondering what is real, which undermines your sense of reality. That’s especially true if you have had experiences that go against your usual paradigm of reality, like if you’re from a very secular background and you go to a plant medicine retreat and suddenly you’re plunged into a world of plant animism. People feel like the experience has destabilized their sense of what is real.
In the longer run, it’s common for people to report emotional difficulties, and anxiety, especially social anxiety, especially if they had a bad trip involving paranoia or negative interpersonal dynamics.
“Flashbacks” are one common negative effect associated with psychedelics. Is that something participants are reporting? Do we have any data on what those entail?
I haven’t researched this specifically, but I wonder if there might be two different things people are referencing when they talk about flashbacks. The first is Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), where people experience a continuation of the visual anomalies they had while on psychedelics. It can be disturbing to people, but it may not be; Ed Prideaux, another researcher on the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project, has said that he has HPPD but over time it doesn’t disturb him anymore, and he no longer sees it as disorder or pathology. What people find bad, challenging, or disturbing depends on their expectations, and that can change. For instance, even after something like meditation, people report feeling depersonalization: for some people, that’s what they want, but for others, it’s off-putting.
The other thing a flashback could be is a trauma response. In the weeks and months after my bad trip, I would have panic attacks, and I would feel dissociation; because I had a traumatic experience, I could get triggered into it again, and it felt quite trippy, like watching myself from the outside.
One of the interesting things for us, as researchers, is to try and delineate these different kinds of experiences; we use the term “flashback” but it could mean all different sorts of things. And we hope that this study will help us map out that terrain, and what people found helpful in dealing with those challenges. I just remember being 18 and the fear I felt, not knowing whether anyone else had an experience like this — I hope this reduces the stigma and gives people the knowledge they need to get through it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.