Catharsis, Transformation, and the Power of Psychedelic Harm Reduction

Doug Sanford

“My passion and success with this work stems from my own psychotic break.”

Ryan Beauregard is sitting with me inside of a massive dome tent that is shielding us from the brisk November winds circling around the National Mall. He is currently facilitating an impromptu workshop, one of the many pieces that come together to make up the third annual Catharsis on the Mall: A Vigil for Healing. Before the weekend is out, rock bands will perform on top of bronze dragons, children will weave through mesmerizing sculptures comprised of screens and mirrors, and local activists will speak on panels about radical and progressive politics in action — all against the backdrop of DC splendor, complete with the Washington Monument aglow at night, and the Capitol looming from the distance.

“My experience really helped create an understanding for me of how to recognize where people are when they are in a difficult psychedelic state,” Beauregard says. “I’ve been really honored to give back this service to the community.”

When Beauregard refers to his psychotic break, he is remembering the admixture — Chiric Sanango — he drank as a part of a ritualistic ceremony in Peru. When the concoction is prepared correctly, its consumption will result in full-on hallucinogenic effects. Ayahuasca has been a part of traditional medicine for indigenous people in the Amazon for millennia, and today people travel from all over the world to participate in the ceremonies and gain transformational insight.

In Beauregard’s case, he was absolutely transformed: the Chiric Sanango left him sleepless for days, shaken for months, and scared to experiment with psychedelics again for years. However, his experience has offered him a helpful perspective when he assists people through challenging “trips” (or, psychedelic experiences) as a volunteer for the Zendo Project.

The Zendo Project is a department of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit research and educational organization started by Rick Doblin in 1986. The Zendo Project aims to ensure compassionate support for anyone having a difficult psychedelic experience, usually at large events like Burning Man. Psychedelics are substances that alter perception, induce hallucinations, and alter states of consciousness. In addition to the aforementioned ayahuasca brew, classical psychedelics include LSD (or, “acid”) and psilocybin (or, “magic mushrooms”). While someone’s intentions to take psychedelics may be recreational, sometimes the potency of the substances can have the opposite effect.

Ronald R. Griffiths is a Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 2016, he and colleagues published the results of a survey study about the enduring effects of bad trips on psilocybin.[1] About 2,000 people responded in detail to an internet survey about their single most challenging experience with psilocybin. Subjects were asked specifically about the size of the dose, the setting conditions in which the experience occurred, the duration of the trip, coping strategies, and negative and positive consequences of the experience.

Sometimes bad trips can cause acute psychological distress, dangerous behavior, or enduring psychological problems. Of the 2,000 respondents, 2.6% reported having behaved in a physically aggressive or violent manner and 2.7% received medical help. 7.6% sought treatment for enduring psychological symptoms.

“What makes a bad trip bad?” asks Beauregard. “The bad is the part of yourself that you don’t want to see.” As a part of the Zendo Project, Beauregard routinely assists people who display the wide variety of symptoms of a difficult psychedelic experience. “People might need to express a lot of emotion, or a lot of movement…whatever it is, we are there to help these people surrender to it. We have pillows and blankets so people can thrash about without hurting themselves or others. We listen to what they have to say instead of guiding the conversation. We can help people feel accepted in states that don’t feel acceptable.”

As Beauregard talks, his eyes shine with genuine compassion for his work, and childlike excitement for being able to speak candidly about it. He gesticulates with his hands. He fiddles with the piece of paper in front of him, which he has laid out for me to see: “Safe Space. Talk Thru, Not Down.” And then, when the cold becomes too much for his fingertips, he returns his hands to his pockets. Although we can’t feel the wind outside, we can hear how the structure squeaks as it comes into contact with it. The pillows we are sitting on keep us separated from the chilled ground, but we still curl into balls, knees bunched into our chests, to conserve as much body heat as possible.

Despite the fact that 62% of participants of the internet survey rated their worst psilocybin trip to be among the top 10 most psychologically challenging experiences of their lives, 76% reported that it also led to increases in well-being and life satisfaction. 31% of participants rated this same session to be the single most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experience of their lives.

“That’s the bigger piece of why we do this work,” says Beauregard. “We have seen that psychedelics have an amazing potential for transformational work…under the right circumstances. Given the right space and the right bandwidth and the right process, people can do some amazing work with what’s stuck inside of them.”

Psychedelics can be thought of as a hard reset for your brain. If your neural networks were like grooves on the road, there would be paths created from the same thoughts and connections repeating themselves in your brain. Psychedelics can clear the paths, fill in the grooves, and wipe the mind clean. Space is created for new thoughts, new realizations, and new patterns.

Psychedelics can also trigger an emotional release. Participants can sometimes feel out of control, or unable to stop themselves from expressing emotion.

“Psychedelics can open a lot of access to the subconscious that is not otherwise accessible in normal states of consciousness,” explains Beauregard. “Most of those folks are not really aware that they’re getting into these places, or intentionally taking psychedelics to do process work.”

The emotional outpouring is the result of what the Zendo Project’s Sara Gael has coined “emotional constipation.” Many people do not feel comfortable expressing emotions publicly, and consequentially do not adequately process things like death, loss, or trauma.

“We are wanting to create a bigger container for people to be able to express the grief, the joy, and the anger that is being a human on the planet. In society, we don’t have a lot of containers for that safe and transformational progression. In Zendo, we have an opportunity to provide that.”

Indeed, in the aforementioned survey study, the majority of participants reported that social support, physical comfort, and safety of surroundings were conducive to having a positive experience.

“[The Zendo Project] has a lot of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, people with different modalities of healing…We acknowledge all of that expertise, and moreso, we acknowledge how psychedelics have been used throughout the eras of plant medicines and shamanism holding down transformational experiences for their community.”

As Beauregard speaks, more and more people begin trickle into the dome, either to escape the numbing cold, or out of genuine curiosity on the nature of our conversation. Suddenly I look behind me and realize that people are all around, tucked into the spaces, sitting on pillows — leaning in to hear Beauregard amid the sounds of faraway music and generators from outside. I am amazed to see little notebooks emerge from pockets and gloved hands scribbling. It is obvious that there is value in what Beauregard has to say, in respect to harm reduction as well as life in general.

“Anybody doing this work, whether they’re fully trained or not, is better than nobody being there when people are in need or in crisis.”

When Beauregard looks at his watch and concludes his conversation, he is met with the joyous applause of cold, gloved hands. The audience members of Beauregard’s impromptu workshop scatter from the dome back out onto the National Mall, where the sunset ushers a night filled with frenzied dancing, ecstatic fire shows, and celebrated performances. In the pockets of some people’s coats bounce some of the notes that Beauregard inspired — the knowledge of psychedelic harm reduction spreading like seeds into the hands of different communities.

Two days later, as quickly as it had been built — Catharsis on the Mall will be dismantled and taken away, leaving no trace until its resurrection next year.

Larry Cohen (ishotbaltimore.net)

In the 30-plus years since its creation, MAPS has successfully pushed a multitude of groundbreaking studies through the FDA, garnering what has been called a “psychedelic renaissance” and paving the way for the medical applications of mind-altering substances. One of these revolutionary studies included MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. Another provided LSD-assisted psychotherapy for subjects with anxiety secondary to life-threatening illness — the first study to evaluate LSD’s therapeutic applications in over 35 years, since its 1970 prohibition.

Both of these studies (and the many that have followed since then) show clinically and statistically significant improvements in neurological disorders. In another article, I spoke with one of the participants of the Johns Hopkins clinical trials about the positive and enduring effects of the psilocybin experience on her fibromyalgia and anxiety. Prescription use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is on track to be available upon completion of Phase 3 studies in 2021.

But most importantly, MAPS has used strong research protocol to forge a solid relationship with the FDA. MAPS fulfills all of the rigorous standards for pharmaceutical drug development research, and FDA no longer “obstruct[s] studies because of irrational fears or political considerations.”[2] MAPS has also expanded its mission to include psychotherapist training, educating the public about the risks and benefits of psychedelics, and psychedelic harm reduction — which is where the Zendo Project comes in.

As MAPS is making space for psychedelic research, psychedelics might slowly become available on the market for therapeutic purposes. In the meantime, the folks of Zendo Project feel a responsibility to educate the psychedelic community on the risks of recreational use.

At events where psychedelic use is imminent, such as Burning Man or even Catharsis, there is a real possibility for harm. There is a real need for honest dialogue and reliable, accurate information. This is why psychedelic harm reduction is important.

In the conclusion of the survey study, Griffiths and colleagues leave us with this nugget: “Psychedelic psychotherapists…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.”

Curiously enough, this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Catharsis.

Larry Cohen (ishotbaltimore.net)

[1] Ronald R. Griffiths. et al. Survey study of challenging experiences after ingesting psilocybin mushrooms: Acute and enduring positive and negative consequences. Journal of Psychopharmacology. Volume 30 Issue 12, 1268–1278 (2016).

[2] Amy Emerson, Linnae Ponté, Lisa Jerome & Rick Doblin. History and Future of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Volume 46 Issue 1, 27–36 (2014).

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