When using psychedelics, preparation is key. Cultivating the right mindset before a psychedelic journey can increase the likelihood of a profoundly positive, life-affirming experience, and reduce your chance of a “bad trip”.
It’s important to remember that no two psychedelic experiences are the same – the effects of the same compound can lead to wildly different results from one journey to the next. There can be awe-inspiring beauty and intense euphoria – but it is also possible to have a nightmarish experience. This is why preparation is so important.
It is often said that there is no such thing as a “bad trip”, and that challenging experiences are a way of the mind processing past trauma. Research has provided some support for this view – one study from 2016 found that difficult experiences when using psilocybin mushrooms often result in an improved sense of personal wellbeing, and enduring positive consequences.
Although there are many proponents of the “no such thing as a bad trip” point of view, no one really wants to endure a negative psychological experience, even if it does result in positive outcomes in the long run. The good news is that there are several things you can do to increase your chances of a positive journey.
- Consider ‘set & setting’
- Cultivate mindfulness
- Understand the stages of the psychedelic experience
- Show reverence
- Commit to a healthy lifestyle
- Go with the flow
1. Considering ‘set & setting’
The term “set & setting” has been around since the 1950s, and was popularized by counter-culture icon Timothy Leary. “Set” refers to your mindset and your intention, whereas “setting” is your physical, social and cultural environment. If you’re going on a psychedelic journey, you will want to make sure both of these are positive, comfortable and relaxed.
To create a setting that is conducive to a positive psychedelic experience, consider all aspects of your physical surroundings:
- Comfort – You will want to be somewhere you can feel as comfortable as possible, with space to sit, lie down and walk around. Somewhere with plenty of soft furnishings isideal. It’s quite common to alternate between feeling hot and cold at the start of a psychedelic experience, so comfortable clothes and blankets are handy!
- Privacy – It is usually best to be in a place that’s private, where you won’t be disrupted. It can be a good idea to put your phone on airplane mode to minimize distractions from the outside world. If you’re tripping with other people, it can be useful to designate a separate room, or a quiet area where you can go to be by yourself, should you feel the need.
- People – It’s really important to have the right people around you when you use psychedelics – people you feel comfortable around, and people you trust. Ideally, you’ll have an experienced, sober tripsitter or guide to help give you support.
- Cleanliness – Make sure that the area is clean, tidy and clear of clutter. A tidy, harmonious space can put you in a more relaxed frame of mind, which can lead to a more positive experience.
- Music – Your choice of music can be an extremely important part of a psychedelic experience. A recent study found that music supports meaning-making, emotionality, and mental imagery, and suggested that music plays an important role in facilitating positive outcomes of psychedelic therapy. Another study from the Beckley Foundation and Imperial College London found that music appears to act as a guide, leading the listener to different psychological places. The study suggested that it can be helpful to use a playlist of songs that you know and like, and that will help you to feel calm and relaxed. In general, avoid overly aggressive or discordant types of music, as these can contribute to challenging experiences.
- Nature – A 2020 study found that psychedelics produce an enduring increase in people’s sense of being connected to nature, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people like to be in a natural setting, such as the woods, when using psychedelics. Bear in mind, however, that this can be more risky – it can be easier to get lost or injured, and you might cross paths with people who are less than sympathetic to your altered state. If it’s your first time using psychedelics, it’s usually better to be in a familiar, private space.
“Set” refers to your frame of mind. It’s important to approach the experience with a positive, open and curious attitude. Ideally, you won’t be entering the experience with unresolved worries about your work or personal life, and you won’t have any looming responsibilities or fears that are playing on your mind. If you do, these are likely to be amplified, which can lead to a very challenging experience .
This isn’t to say that you should be in perfect mental health before you can use psychedelics. On the contrary, many people use psychedelics to help process past trauma, or to deal with the root cause of their anxieties. The important thing is to feel comfortable in your expectations and intentions, and to be clear about why you are taking this step. If your aim is to deal with specific personal issues, then be open to exploring them deeply, without resistance.
2. Cultivating mindfulness
One of the best things you can do to increase the likelihood of a positive psychedelic trip is to practice being more mindful. Mindfulness is the skill of being clearly aware of thoughts, feelings and sensations in the present moment. Researchers have now shown that mindfulness meditation can enhance the positive long-term effects of a single dose of psilocybin.
When we embark on a psychedelic journey, we experience a range of new and unusual experiences, both physical and mental. Through mindfulness, we learn to observe these experiences without judgment, and avoid getting pulled into cycles of unpleasant or fearful thoughts and emotions. If negative feelings arise, we can notice them, and mindfully let them pass.
There are several ways you can practice being more mindful in the run-up to your psychedelic experience:
- Meditation – One of the most common mindfulness practices is meditation. To practice a simple form of meditation, find a comfortable, upright position, close your eyes, and observe the sensations of breathing. If you get distracted by thoughts, notice the thought briefly, and then gently bring your attention back to the breath. By practicing this technique regularly, you should develop a clarity and awareness that will start to imbue all aspects of your life. This can have a hugely beneficial impact on your psychedelic experience, allowing you to process any challenging feelings more effectively, and to be fully present for the journey.
- Journaling – Journaling is a great mindful practice to take up before using psychedelics. Writing about your thoughts, feelings, worries and anxieties can help you to understand them and process them better. A 2018 study showed that mindful journaling reduces anxiety, mental distress and stress, while increasing resilience and improving social integration. This can help you to cultivate the right ‘set’ for your psychedelic experience.
- Yoga – Yoga combines meditative practice with mindful movement, to put you more in touch with your body and mind. This is a useful practice when it comes to psychedelics, because the experience can be a very physical one, as well as mental. By learning to be mindfully aware of the sensations throughout your body, you can more easily notice and navigate the more physical elements of the psychedelic journey.
- Day-to-day presence – You don’t have to sit down on a cushion and close your eyes to be mindful. Mindfulness is about being fully present, with whatever you happen to be doing. Try bringing moments of mindfulness into your daily routine – for example, when you are brushing your teeth, taking a shower, travelling to work, or going for a walk, do these things with absolute presence. If you get distracted, gently guide your attention back to the task at hand. The more you do this, the more natural it will become, paving the way for a mindful and positive psychedelic experience.
3. Understanding the stages of the psychedelic experience
Knowing what to expect when using psychedelics can drastically improve your chances of a good experience.
- Bodily sensations – The onset of a psychedelic experience can be quite physical. You might feel bodily sensations such as pressure, tingling or shaking. It’s also possible to experience changes in body temperature, nausea, or the sense of energy flowing throughout your body. Remember that these are all normal – just observe them with a sense of curiosity.
- Visual and auditory changes – Colors might become incredibly vibrant, and still images may appear to be moving. The size of and distances between objects may become distorted. You might hear and see things that aren’t really there. Allow these sensory experiences to wash over you.
- Changes in perception – It’s common to see things from a whole new perspective when using psychedelics. You might have profound realizations about your life, your relationships, or about the nature of reality. You might also perceive time differently, or the concept of time might even lose all meaning. This can be disconcerting when it’s unexpected – try to let the experience happen, without analyzing it too much.
- Dissolution of reality / ego dissolution / ego death – The sense of self can start to fade away, and the fabric of reality can seem to disintegrate. ‘Ego death’ occurs when there is no longer a boundary between self and other, and any sensation of ‘me’ as a separate, distinguishable identity is temporarily obliterated. You might feel a sense of ‘oneness’ with the whole universe.
- Re-entry to normal reality – The restoration of the sense of self after ego death can be an unusual, and even uncomfortable experience. On the other hand, it can be a beautiful encounter with reality, a feeling of being reborn. Allow this process to unfold naturally, without judgment or analysis.
- Afterglow – The hours, or even days, after a psychedelic journey can be a time of contented contemplation as you start to process everything you’ve experienced. Try not to overanalyze during this time. Give yourself time to integrate the experience.
4. Showing reverence
Psychedelics are not to be taken lightly. They are often portrayed as a party drug, or a new-age indulgence, but these descriptions do them no justice. The term “psychedelics” is derived from the Greek for ‘mind-manifesting’ – this is because they expand our consciousness, and open us up to new ways of perceiving ourselves and the world around us. Participants in psychedelic research carried out by Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University ranked their psychedelic experience as one of the most profound experiences in their lives, alongside the death of loved ones, and the birth of their children.
It is important to understand this before using psychedelics. By learning about the incredible profundity of the psychedelic experience, it can lead us to a sense of respectful reverence for entheogens, opening us up to the wonders that they have to offer.
5. Committing to a healthy lifestyle
In the run-up to a psychedelic journey, it can be beneficial to prepare not only mentally, but also physically. By taking steps to feel fit and healthy, it can put you in the best possible frame of mind for a positive experience. You don’t need to go on an extreme detox, or sweat it out at boot camp – it’s all about making positive, healthy choices as part of your normal routine.
It can be helpful to avoid alcohol for a while, to eat more vegetables and less processed food, and try to be more physically active. Studies show that healthy lifestyle choices, such as cutting out alcohol and smoking, as well as increasing physical activity, leads to improved mental wellbeing – and as we’ve already discussed, a better frame of mind contributes to a more positive psychedelic experience.
6. Going with the flow
Once you’ve ingested some magic mushrooms, a tab of LSD, or a ceremonial psychedelic brew, there’s not much you can do to stop the effects. You’ll soon experience a shift in consciousness that is so profound that you will probably never look at the world in the same way again. Going with the flow is one of the most important pieces of advice you can receive.
In contrast to going with the flow, trying to control or change your thoughts or feelings during a trip can put you on the fast-track to a challenging experience. There are a few common ways that people tend to attempt to exert control over their journey:
- Grasping for the positive – Psychedelics can lead to intense euphoria, and it can be tempting to try to cling on to these states of mind. Try to avoid this if possible – by allowing them to come and go naturally, without trying to force the experience, you can actually improve the frequency and longevity of those blissful states of mind.
- Pushing away the negative – It is normal for uncomfortable, challenging and even scary thoughts and feelings to arise during a trip. The best way to deal with them is to try to observe them closely, with a sense of curiosity. Remember that they will pass – try to relax, and don’t fight it.
- Clinging to the ego – With high enough doses, ego loss is almost inevitable – a disintegration of the boundary between self and environment, a stripping away of your sense of identity. As this starts to happen, it can feel like you are losing your grip on reality, and this can be a scary sensation. It is important not to cling to your sense of self, as this can intensify and elongate the discomfort. Just be present, and go with the flow.