In this edition of Amplify, WOOP interviews Marta Kaczmarczyk. This fierce woman with a master’s degree in Cognitive Science is the co-founder and coordinator of the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands. She used to work as an assistant facilitator at Synthesis, and now rocks the psychedelic world as a physical and mental health wellbeing coach.
In this interview, Marta tells us everything about how ending up in a dissociative state after using 5-MeO-DMT, made her want to study this subject and spread the word. She thinks there’s a bias towards angelizing psychedelics as a wondrous solution to human mental problems and she warns of the more risky consequences, such as hypomania and egomania. Curious to read Marta’s story? Continue reading!
This interview was conducted by Marlies van Exter
WOOP: You’ve always been driven by curiosity. Has this curiosity also brought you on the path of psychedelics?
Marta: Yes, definitely. I read about psychedelics a long time ago, when I was a teenager. I was super curious to find out what it was. It looked like something I wanted to experience by myself.
The first time I did that was 15 years ago, with friends in nature. It was before the discussion about set and setting, so more like what we call “recreational use” today. It was a pretty nice experience.
WOOP: What made you decide to work in this field?
Marta: I have a masters degree in Cognitive Science and started to read papers on psychedelics. It was super inspiring and fascinating to find out more about these substances. How they, for example, can reorganize the connection of the brain parts for a short time. Or how neuroplasticity can help people improve stress management, create better learning, and enhance life in general.
Psychedelics offer this window of opportunity where you can do something about your state and introduce changes easier than when you try to do that soberly.
But there's another reason why I got more seriously involved in psychedelics. I was so fascinated with these substances that I started to experiment heavily. I wanted to see what different types of psychedelics could do to me. I then tried Bufo Alvarius, so 5-MeO-DMT. That was beneficial in the long term, but I wasn't fully grounded after the experience, which put me into a dissociative state. So I actually got a bit depersonalized afterwards.
That affected my life and led to a lot of challenges. It was a strange experience. I knew that something was off, but at that time, people still had no idea that psychedelics could have these side effects. I could not find anyone who could explain my state, and no one knew what was going on. It felt isolating.
Then I started to read on dissociation and depersonalization. And I found out that there was nearly nothing about the risks of using these substances without an experienced guide who knows how to ground you afterwards. That's where I decided to dedicate myself to giving talks about this topic. Because I felt that there was a big gap in the community. Luckily, the field has been catching up. Many people have put a lot of work into depersonalization and dissociation and there are plenty of resources nowadays.
WOOP: You mention a few other critical issues to be aware of, such as hypomania. Can you tell us more about that? Marta: It's helpful to understand what can happen during the psychedelic experience and why there's a risk of side effects, like hypomania or egomania. In some ways, psychedelics are sympathomimetic, which means they temporarily increase agitation and stress levels. People respond differently to that physical reaction. Some have a constructive response; others have a maladaptive or difficult response, or feel out of control or unsafe. That can open traumas or emotions that haven't been processed yet. At the same time, the various parts of the brain are working differently, and the affected senses can create an even more stressful state. If this experience is overwhelming, it can lead to the nervous system putting a brake on the agitation. And that shut-down state can create a similar state to PTSD, where stress is unreleased and unprocessed. The body is trying to deal with it, but it can't. That's when the coping mechanisms kick in. Each person has different coping mechanisms in stressful situations. Some people have constructive ones, such as asking for help, but others might have maladaptive strategies such as numbing or switching to a hypomanic state. In a hypomanic state, there’s an increase in dopamine because there is a signal from the body that there's something wrong, and the mind is driven to figure out what is going on. That increase in dopamine leads to impulsiveness and risky behaviours and can also lead to a form of addiction to this hypomanic state. Therefore it is difficult to convince a person that what they are experiencing might not be good for them. The hypomanic state can start during the psychedelic experience, and it can last for a long time, sometimes even for a year or more, depending on how you deal with it. If you are aware that you are in a hypomanic state, you can bring yourself back reasonably fast. But some people don't realize that they are in that state and stay there and create stories to justify their behaviour because the coping mechanism was not closed. Eventually, a prolonged hypomanic state leads to depression or burnout.
WOOP: And what about egomania? Marta: Egomania is when the ego is so boosted that the person thinks they are special. In my opinion, it's also a coping mechanism. What can happen during a psychedelic experience is that people, for example, find out that they’re not where they would like to be in their life. Or they discover that they have never felt appreciated in their life or their emotional needs are not being covered. To deal with the consequent low self-esteem, they look into the opposite and decide that they are worth more than others because of what they saw during their psychedelic experience. They boost their ego to believe that they have certain knowledge or went through something that makes them special. The majority of those people have good intentions, they’re just locked in their maladaptive coping mechanisms. They think that their vision is the only true one, and they don't want to hear anything about being wrong or that they should change. The egomaniac state is their attempt to get out of low self-esteem and gain confidence.
WOOP: Can you get out of this coping mechanism? Marta: It's challenging, because a lot of those people go into that egomaniac state because they don't trust others and don't have much trust in what others say. So even if you try to have a compassionate and gentle conversation with them, it’s kind of difficult to get the person out of it. They are super sensitive to any criticism, and they see it as an attack. So, they have to take responsibility and see for themselves that they’re trapped in a coping mechanism. I know stories of people who got out of egomania because they had a crisis. Imagine, people who think they are enlightened or in higher spiritual realms are suddenly in the middle of a life crisis. Soon comes the moment when they start to think: I'm so spiritual, it's strange that these bad things are happening to me.
WOOP: You know a lot about somatic-oriented approaches. Can you tell us how you use this knowledge in your work?
Marta: Usually, multiple factors play a role, if someone’s health is affected. We're social animals. If we don’t get positive feedback for what we do or our actions are not appreciated, it could lead to feelings of isolation. That can affect our physical health, cause an imbalance in neurotransmitters and autoimmune responses. Nowadays, many people have this problem because we were brought up by a generation focused on a career instead of creating strong communities. As a physical and mental health wellbeing coach, I try to help people see the bigger picture. Show that their problem is not entirely their responsibility. I always send a questionnaire to each client beforehand, to see which areas might be affected and responsible for their problems. We look into the diet, sleeping patterns, maybe some deficiencies. And also how they feel about their social interactions, how they deal with job stress, their emotions, boredom and stuff like that. So, I'm trying to create a picture of the person to see in which areas they're doing OK and where there's a bit of a gap.
Sometimes the solution is very simple. For instance, the person may need to become aware of body responses, and slowering breathing can already help. But the first thing I always do is show them that they have to accept where they are. Many people don’t accept where they are and who they are, which causes unnecessary additional stress. Once you accept yourself, you can take responsibility, have more energy and focus on resolving other things you want to fix. There’s no magic cure, and in some way, people need to address many problems but releasing, and decreasing stress is the most important thing.
WOOP: Do you use psychedelics with your clients? Marta: I used to work as an assistant facilitator for the Synthesis Retreat, where we worked with psilocybin truffles. I preferred to keep my psychedelic work there because I could learn and get support from amazing therapists and facilitators. Nowadays, with my consultations, I just work with preparation and integration or recommend natural supplements like herbs or medicinal mushrooms.
WOOP: Can you tell us more about reading symbolic language to better understand psychedelic messages and dreams?
Marta: The symbolic language is more primordial, and our subconsciousness tends to communicate with us through that symbolic language. The symbols can be decoded fairly easily. once you understand how they were shaped through life experiences. For example, if you dreamed about the sea and a ship, you can find the meaning of these symbols online and then connect it to your life story and see what resonates with you. Doing this teaches you how to understand what your subconsciousness is trying to communicate. This is often the topic of integration after a psychedelic experience because a lot of symbolic material usually comes up. Through conversation, I hand out tools so people can decode those magical messages by themselves. Some write a journal or create a mind map; others search for the meaning of the symbols online or draw mandalas. Everyone has a different tool that clicks with them to release what happened and understand what that symbolic message means for their lives.
WOOP: What advice do you have for our readers interested in trying psychedelics for healing or self-liberation or empowerment? Marta: My first advice would be to make sure that you go to a very experienced facilitator. And by that, I mean a person who is trauma-informed, provides proper preparation and integration and knows how to deal with extreme states like psychosis or massive panic attacks. The cases of extreme panic are very rare. Still, if you're one of the rare cases and you are at a place where the facilitators are inexperienced, you might end up with worsened mental health, for example, with depersonalization or something like this. Ideally, try to find a place where the substance you're using is legal, like in the Netherlands, where psilocybin truffles are permitted. Here you can find proper retreat centers. Do not risk doing something illegal because that also increases the possibility that the person who guides you is not fully trained. So, be really cautious and reasonable about doing this because you can damage yourself. Many people don't realize that certain medical conditions or supplements, like drugs and medication, can cause a powerful interaction that can lead to serious health issues. Therefore, the screening process is very important. You can recognize a well-trained facilitator if they have a really detailed medical screening process.
WOOP: What’s your idea of the recreational use of psychedelics?
Marta: I would say: do not use psychedelics recreationally if you have never tried them before. Do not go to a festival and take some kind of substance that you have no idea about. Even if your friends tell you that it'll be okay because they all react really well to it. You never know what's going to happen. You might be taking medication. You might be taking supplements. You might have a health condition that poses a risk. Then, on the other hand, what’s the recreational use? Many people use psychedelics in a more relaxed state, while usually, the guides provide a more serious healing therapeutic context. But if they go with you into a more joyful side, it can be very healing too. I used to do one-on-one sessions, and I had a few clients who actually laughed through the whole experience, and they felt much better after this.
WOOP: You are the co-founder of the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands. Why is it important to have these kinds of societies? Marta: The majority of psychedelic societies and organizations focus on education. Many people have a very positive outlook on psychedelics because they read Michael Pollan's book or some articles in the media like the New York Times or Forbes. They think: I'm depressed. I don't feel well. I just need to take a psychedelic, and from what I read, it's beneficial, and it can help me. It's a one-sided outlook.
We try to send as much information on all sides of the psychedelic experience. We also create communities for the people who went through the psychedelic experience but have no one to talk to about it. We are a platform for people to connect and have a space to discuss what they went through.
WOOP: Could you share some of your thoughts on female leadership and representation in the psychedelic industry?
Marta: The community seems to be very white-male-dominated, but luckily more women are coming to the field. These are strong women really dedicated to introducing change and making sure that there's more equality.
My close friend Anya, one of the directors of the British Psychedelic Society and filmmaker, is planning to create a documentary about women and psychedelics. She wants to highlight the interesting and very original research done by women in the field. There's a lot of it but it’s hardly discussed!
WOOP: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Marta: I'm scientifically oriented, so I'm always excited about studies to better understand the psychedelic experience. So far, psychedelics have been mostly studied from the brain's perspective, ignoring the body. But brain reaction is just one thing. Science is now starting to look into psychedelics from a genetic standpoint because there's a possibility that they can change us on the epigenetic level. So there's research, for example, on whether MDMA can turn off trauma on the epigenetic level. I'm super excited and really looking forward to the results of those studies. I think there's so much more to discover. It’s a super exciting field to be in.