Psychedelic emergency work at festivals
Interview with an expert:
Like all psychedelics, mushrooms can induce states of pure ecstasy and bliss – but they can also cause less pleasant experiences. The experience of feeling overwhelmed and anxious after taking a psychedelic substance is widely known a 'bad trip'.
Mika* is a volunteer at psychedelic emergency services at festivals such as Boom and Burning Man. Over the years she has assisted many people having a bad trip. She also has some experience with this state of consciousness herself. We tap into her knowledge by interviewing her.
What do you experience on a bad trip?
It can be many things, but there's always a level fear or anxiety involved. People sense a threat to their physical or mental well-being, or a social threat – such as being rejected by other people. People might be afraid that they are dying. Or that they're going crazy. They may be paranoid about other people talking about them, or laughing at them. There are many variations in the perceived threat. One guy thought he was locked up in another dimension where he would have to spend eternity alone, not being able to communicate with anyone. Sometimes people see themselves as a threat: like the girl who thought she was telepathically causing harm to other people at the festival, and wanted to punish herself for it.
Can you experience sadness?
I always encourage people to express sadness, as it can be part of the solution.
Why would sadness be good in dealing with bad trips?
Bad trips can be caused by suppressing intense emotions, such as sadness or grief. Allowing these emotions to be there – really feeling them and expressing them – can be a turning point in the bad trip. It can become a transformative experience. That's why we [psychedelic care workers] don't like the term 'bad trip.' Sure, the experiences we are talking about can be really tough. But difficult is not the same as bad. Even if these states of consciousness are terrifying, they can be an opportunity to learn a deep lesson, to resolve an mental conflict, or even to heal a traumatic experience. I've seen people breaking down crying. Sobbing and wailing loudly. We're always relieved when someone moves from being paranoid or terrified to being sad and expressing it.
What changes in the trip when people express emotional pain?
When fear and terror make way for sadness and pain, I see it as a sign of consciousness healing itself. [Speaking about festival settings in particular:] The recreational substance has become a medicine. Acceptance and forgiveness are now within reach of the person – there is no longer inner resistance. Tears of pain might turn into tears of gratitude and joy. It's a very beautiful and moving process to witness.
What is the main function of the psychedelic emergency service?
A festival is not the optimal setting for dealing with these challenging states of consciousness – not even at our psychedelic emergency service. We have to deal with loud music, big crowds, extreme weather conditions. We are really a psychological first aid – doing the best we can to minimize peoples' anxiety, but our main function is to keep people safe. Basic things, like staying well hydrated when it's 40 degrees, become difficult when people are tripping hard. So when I say keeping people safe, I mean it quite literally. We provide a safe space where their body is looked after, so their mind can deal with the experience.
Can you get stuck in a bad trip?
As the effects of the psychedelics wear off, so will the difficult experience. It's a myth that you can get stuck in a trip. However: psychedelics can trigger an episode of psychosis in people with a predisposition to it. And sometimes a combination of sleep deprivation, combining multiple substances and other extreme festival-conditions triggers a psychosis.
Can you prevent a bad trip?
You can minimize the risk by choosing the right set and setting. This means tripping at the right time, in the right place and with the right people. You should feel comfortable to laugh or to cry– keep this in mind when choosing the location as well as your company. Inform yourself about what you are taking – know the dose, the duration and the quality of the substance. Take a moderate dose. If you take a high dose, have someone sober stay with you. A tripsitter who knows about psychedelic states of consciousness, and who realizes that difficult is not the same as bad, can help to keep you safe if things get rough.
And what about preventing bad trips at festivals?
If you take psychedelics at a festival, take good care of yourself. Stay hydrated, get enough sleep, don't combine with other substances, and take a lower dose than you would at home. Even if you have a lot of experience. Keep in mind that the festival setting magnifies the psychedelic effects! And say fuck you to people who try to peer pressure you.
In our next blog about this subject, Mika explains the basic principles of her work as a psychedelic emergency worker. And she will give some advice on how to help someone who’s having a bad trr…. difficult experience. To be continued!
* To protect our expert’s privacy, we have given her a pseudonym.