How to Support Someone Having a Bad Trip
A crisis counselor offers his tips for encounters in person, on the telephone, and over Zoom.
The world is in crisis. The pandemic has impacted every human on this planet in a deeply personal way. It is only natural for people to seek ways to feel lighter. Many of us are looking for relief from the fear and isolation sparked by COVID-19, reaching to experience pleasure and connection during this time of intense disconnection.
Some people seek to optimize and comfort themselves through psychedelic compounds. Psychedelics have been used throughout history for celebration, recreation, inner exploration and spiritual evolution. Widely circulated studies have shown the mental health benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapies. It’s not surprising that people are choosing to increasingly use these substances in non-medical and social settings during a time of hardship.
Those who use psychedelics sometimes have challenging experiences when they shift their consciousness. Creating support systems for different kinds of encounters with psychedelics help people receive appropriate care and avoid unnecessary encounters with law enforcement or emergency services.
The following are some key points for providing psychedelic support in different situations including by telephone, video call, encounters within your COVID-19 pod and outside your COVID-19 pod.
Much of the information, strategies, and techniques presented here are drawn from personal and professional research and direct experience. I work full time as a crisis counselor for a phone hotline service. I provide in-person psychedelic risk reduction at festivals and gatherings and I manage online psychedelic peer support at virtual events. These are pro tips that you can use in any situation, anywhere, in any setting.
The Basics of Psychedelic Support
- Remain Grounded and Centered. There is no rush to do something or get anywhere.
- Assess for Safety. Is the voyager in imminent danger to self or others? Are they medically stable? If the situation is unsafe, work towards finding safety and/or escalate to emergency services.
- Once safety is established, connect with the voyager by listening (without judgment) to what they are experiencing. Validate and reflect emotions that arise throughout the conversation. “It sounds really intense right now, you feel afraid and confused.”
- If possible, find out what substance they took and when. This will help you assess potential medical needs and expected duration of the experience. Reassure the voyager that this too shall pass and that they will return to their baseline state of consciousness in a few hours.
- Explore the voyager’s setting with them. Setting can greatly influence the experience. Is the voyager in a loud, stimulating environment? See if they can go somewhere quieter or calmer.
- Stay present and grounded and let the voyager drive the process. Invite them to relax into the experience. Remind them that they are safe and you are with them. Encourage deep breaths and hydration. Focus awareness on breathing and physical alignment.
- All emotions are welcome here. Avoid trying to get someone to feel “better.” Healing can be hard and that’s okay.
- Allow for moments of silence. This could be a sign that the voyager is going inward. “We don’t need to talk a lot right now. I’ll stay on the phone/zoom/etc. with you and if you need to check in, I’ll be here.”
- Practice thoughtful Self-Care and make sure your own basic needs are being met.
Over the Phone
Suppose your friend is in pandemic lockdown and hasn’t been able to see you or your other friends in a while. They decide to take a solo trip on their own, thinking they might do a small dose and enjoy some music in their isolation. Suddenly they realize that they may have taken more than they expected and need a familiar face, or voice. They call you in distress.
- Your primary tool is verbal connection and conversation.
- Key words to help guide the support person’s engagement: Remain Grounded, Curiosity, Validation, Empathy, Reflection, Allowing, Trusting, Slowing Down
- Use your voice to create a connection to your grounded presence. Remember to allow for silence too.
- Example phrases:
- “Can you describe what you are experiencing right now?”
- “How does that feel in your body?”
- “It’s really intense right now. I’m right here with you. This will pass.”
- “Are you open to taking a few deep breaths right now?”
- “Clarity will likely come later on. This experience is welcome here.”
- Caller: “I feel like I need to sing…” Support: “Go ahead and sing!”
On Zoom/Video Call
Similar to a situation that involves a phone call, some voyagers may prefer a video call. This is common at online events where virtual risk reduction teams assist altered participants in a dedicated Zoom Room or other digital space.
- Consider creating a visual environment that is calming, an atmosphere with warm lighting and beautiful backgrounds (perhaps a single tapestry) rather than a blank wall, overstimulating or messy spaces.
- Be aware of your body language and positioning towards the camera. Look at the difference between shoulders square with the camera versus slightly turned.
- Allow the voyager to disengage from the screen when they feel ready. Screens are stimulating on their own.
Inside Your Pod
This is likely the safest possible way to be a support person for psychedelic experiences. When the voyager and the support person are already within the same level of exposure or non-exposure to one another, they can have a more direct encounter. This is usually reserved for close friends, family, or housemates.
- If the voyager and support person are members of the same COVID-19 pod, this means they share common agreements and care around COVID-19 safety outside the pod. People within the pod are likely in close proximity and unmasked around one another in their daily lives.
- Because the pod is already in close connection, there are no extra considerations to address around COVID-19 safety.
- The advantage to this situation is that support can be offered in person and in close range, even inviting nurturing touch like holding hands or hugging.
Outside Your Pod
This situation goes straight to the heart of risk reduction. We need to be honest with ourselves about what is going on around us if we are going to find ways to make the situation safer.
Despite the risks of spreading COVID-19, people are still gathering. Each of these gatherings have their own threshold for COVID-19 safety practices. This ranges from all participants being tested before attendance, to completely ignoring COVID-19 as a reality. For those of you attending and providing peer support at potentially high-risk gatherings, please carefully consider the following:
- If the voyager and support person are not part of the same pod, COVID-19 risks are much higher and require special attention.
- Once safety and connection is established between the voyager and support person, the support person should attempt to clearly and compassionately state COVID-19. boundaries such as: “I’m right here with you and I’m going to keep my mask on and remain at least 6 feet from you.”
- If there are soft objects nearby, such as a pillow or blanket, offer those items to the voyager as a stand in for physical contact if they really want someone closer to them.
- COVID-19 is primarily transferred through respiratory droplets (via coughing, sneezing, or talking closely to one another). If the voyager is unmasked, keep in mind that distance and positioning is important to help protect your own safety. Encourage them to put on a mask.
- Indoors: Can feel like a more held/contained/controlled environment for the voyager’s experience. However sharing indoor space presents a higher risk for COVID-19 exposure.
- Outdoors: Voyager may feel more exposed or not warm enough. Possibility of COVID-19 transmission is reduced in this lower risk environment.
- Outdoor Space with Tapestries/Privacy Walls: Most ideal set up.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Have masks, gloves, visor/goggles, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes available for yourself and the voyager at all times. A person deep into a psychedelic experience may not be able to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols or may reject these suggestions.
Throughout the process of providing psychedelic support to people outside your pod, you will need to be ready to disinfect nearby objects, surfaces and yourself. At regular intervals, change and wash the clothes worn while providing supportive care. Wash your hands frequently and take a shower when you return home. Disinfect your phone and other objects in your possession. Wipe down your car and high touch surfaces.
People have an inherent need for joy, connection, creativity, and self-understanding, especially in dark and isolating times such as these. This information is meant to provide some insight and preparation for those who serve as a lighthouse for their fellow voyagers in the stormy seas of this pandemic.