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What Happens When You Get Terrible News While High?

Being told about the death of a loved one when you’re already fucked up might be the worst trip of your life

There’s never a good time to get bad news — only bad times and worse times. The absolute worst time to get traumatic news, though, is surely when you’re high as balls: The ultimate bad trip. Then again, the classic response to bad news is having a stiff drink, so maybe it could help cushion the blow?

Let’s find out.

Even when people are sober, “It’s difficult to predict how someone will respond to traumatic news,” shares Andrew Bell, a clinical psychologist with a focus in trauma. “Some may remain connected and present, others may become agitated and hyper-aroused, and still others may collapse into a state of disbelief or stupor.” Most people will likely experience several of these reactions, shifting back-and-forth between them. “This ‘pendulation’ is often critical to processing and negotiating trauma, and is best done under conditions where people feel safe and connected,” adds Bell.

It’s already pretty complicated, then, and Bell believes that being under the influence, “especially [of] a recreational drug with lots of nonspecific effects, would interfere with this important process.”

While it’s impossible to be sure how any one person might respond to getting rough news under the influence, the kind of drug they’re on will likely play a substantial role. And although there are countless different variations of drugs out there, the kind of effect it may have can likely be determined simply on whether it’s an upper or a downer.

With uppers — like cocaine and amphetamines — your hyperarousal will likely only worsen. Philip Hemphill, the Chief Clinical Officer with Lakeview Health, shares that this news may be “perceived as a threat, requiring a fight, flight or frozen reaction.” In other words, your brain will likely react in a primal way, resulting in panic, rage or complete shock. Bell adds that while the fight/flight/freeze response is “great for confronting predators and other life-threatening situations, these primitive survival responses can also inhibit the very brain functions necessary to process traumatic news.”

Hemphill also cautions that someone in this heightened state will likely have an “exaggerated response,” so the “fight” experience might make someone become combative and destructive (to property or themselves), while if they experience “flight,” they may regress and become childlike, causing them to flee from stimuli just to get a grip (“bad trip” indeed).

With downers — like alcohol and barbiturates — the response will likely be a “numbing effect,” Hemphill explains. He continues that their response will likely be “sluggish and ignoring.” While this may sound somewhat desirable in the short term, the long-term consequences may be worse than if you had had a bad reaction on an upper. “This short-term numbing effect might paradoxically encourage future use as a way to alleviate discomfort, which might lead to addiction,” Bell warns, making that high your go-to thing everytime you can’t handle what’s going on in the real world.

There’s another thing, too: The reactions above all assume that you’re “on the way up” in your high. But if you get this bad news toward the end of your high — while you’re in the withdrawal phase — expect the opposite reaction for each, i.e., a subdued reaction when coming off an upper and a more irritable, adverse reaction when sobering up from a downer. This is because it goes along with the regular track of a high — the natural numbness when coming off a stimulant would numb the effects and the headachey recovery from alcohol may cause irritation.

If you do end up with this kind of horrific trip, future highs may also be affected. You’re probably familiar with the idea of certain areas or locations triggering specific memories — say, a certain stretch of highway always reminds you of a family road trip. That’s something called context-dependent memory. A similar effect is called state-dependent memory, which means that memories may be triggered by being in the same state of mind as what you’re recalling. So, if you received terrible news while under the influence of a certain drug, the next time — and perhaps every time you use it — those same memories may be triggered.

As a result, Hemphill claims, “Individuals may try to avoid that state in the future, or they may repeatedly return to it in an attempt to master it by having a different outcome.” Basically, if it doesn’t scare you off that feeling for good, it may compel you to do said drug more so that you can get back that old feeling you used to get before the traumatic event interfered with your buzz.

Finally, the other huge variable in this equation is you. It’s impossible to know exactly how any one person is going to react to grief: They might lash out, or they might withdraw. Drugs are similar: Some people get paranoid as fuck when they smoke weed, while others chill out completely. When combining these two elements, it can be hard to predict what the outcome will be.

Your experience and tolerance matters, too. If this is a drug and high you’re used to, the effect won’t be so exaggerated. But if it’s your first time on a drug and someone runs over your dog, don’t expect to take the news well.

Generally speaking, you can expect your high, whether up or down, to be exaggerated by the effects of getting shitty news, which is why the experts don’t recommend using drugs to deal with any difficult news. British Medical Journal author Paul Gahlinger warns that even if a drug may numb things up front, you shouldn’t expect them to be “beneficial in the long-term grief processing. Only a social support network and compassion will help.”

So, uh, just say no, kids.

Alternatively, never answer your phone while you’re baked.