There’s a reason that psychedelics have such a complicated reputation. In addition to being strikingly powerful and potentially life-altering substances, they are deeply contextual. No two experiences with them are ever identical. Sometimes trips can be euphoric beyond verbal description. At other times, they can catalyze profound terror and anxiety, or even temporary loss of lucidity. Infinite combinations and permutations of emotions and happenings can take place in between those two polar extremes.
Taking psychedelics tends to be a bit like a visually striking freefall. One of the biggest fears that people have expressed to me over the years is that they don’t feel like they can handle being out of control, and that taking psychedelics would cause them to panic about being trapped in a drug experience that they didn’t enjoy. One of the core components of a psychedelic experience is indeed that the traveler is not fully in control.
This insight is often where lessons can be learned, changes can be made and thought patterns can be challenged. Existence is, inherently, one very long string of not being in control. Voluntarily inviting and accepting a loss of control is arguably the only way to actually be in control, and is also arguably one of the most significant identifiers of a psychedelic experience.
This is not to say that dropping acid in a Home Depot parking lot is necessarily the best way to invite and accept a loss of control. Psychedelics are deceptively powerful. Sometimes they’ll put you in the driver’s seat, sometimes they’ll take you for a ride, and sometimes you’ll go from driving to being strapped to the roof in a matter of seconds. Thinking carefully and critically about how to best set yourself up to succeed on your psychedelic journey in whatever state you need to be in is incredibly important, and something that even the most seasoned journeyers sometimes neglect to do.
There are two primary areas that can be tended to before, during and after a trip to minimize risk, colloquially known as “set” and “setting.” However, there’s plenty more to be aware of before taking psychedelics, such as intention setting, “chapters” of a trip, your trip-mates, integration practices and (of course) some ways that Covid-19 complicates this whole ordeal. We’ll cover all of these things and still only scratch the surface.
“Set” refers to your mindset, which is reflected in the ways that you’re thinking about your trip, the actual contents of your thoughts during the trip, or your attitude towards the experience. It can also be your mood going into and coming out of the trip.
“Changing your set” usually refers to, effectively, a perspective shift, in which a person intentionally thinks differently. For example, if a person has decided that they don’t want to physically be where they are, no longer wants to be tripping, or isn’t feeling sociable but wants to be, and is fixating on these distressing thoughts, it can lead to mental discomfort or anxiety.
“Change your set” can mean “change your attitude about your experience” or “change your response to the feelings that you are having.” This is a powerful tool for promoting emotional flexibility both in and out of altered states and can be applied to any challenging situation.
If you are feeling particularly emotionally volatile or vulnerable on the day that you’re thinking of tripping, it’s possible that your feelings could be amplified to an uncomfortable degree during the experience. Additionally, thinking about your trip with the anticipation that it will go a specific way might end up causing unforeseen anxiety if your experience defies expectation. Being mindful of your own mental state surrounding a trip – and being willing to put active, intentional effort into changing it if needed – can drastically improve the quality and safety of your experience. Remember: You’re working with yourself, not against yourself, in the psychedelic sphere. Be kind to yourself and remember that tripping takes practice.
“Setting” refers to a person’s environment. While the physical space that someone occupies is the most obvious component of their setting, all five of the senses should be considered. Music, lighting, social company, clothing, temperature, furniture and the ability to successfully meet basic needs are all essential too!
In order to prepare for any kind of trip, your environment should be well stocked with easily accessible water, simple snacks like fruit or cheese (beware of dry foods) and means of changing your body temperature, such as extra layers. Your temperature regulation can sometimes be thrown off while tripping. A few items that comfort and ground you, a way to contact the outside world if needed and an area that is calm and devoid of overwhelming sensory stimulation are also helpful. Ideally you should also have access to a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
One of the simplest ways to change the setting of a trip is through music. Music that is overly repetitive, harsh, fast, or active can sometimes be intense to the point of discomfort. Changing genres or moods can help transition trips from one “chapter” into the next. Additionally, changing outfits, brushing your teeth, making herbal tea, washing your face, getting up and dancing or doing jumping jacks, singing, yelling, or anything to change your body’s position and nature in space can be powerful shifts in setting. Never underestimate the therapeutic potential of brushing your teeth while tripping!
Tripping outdoors can pose several challenges, namely:
- It gets colder when the sun goes down, which can influence a person’s mental state if they’re not prepared with additional layers
- Having access to a clean bathroom can be challenging
- Depending on where you are, you may not be able to get comfortable
- Your level of physical comfort deeply influences your level of mental comfort during a trip
- Encountering strangers in the wild can be a daunting experience while altered
- Making decisions while tripping can be very difficult, especially while in a group
- These factors can complicate an outdoor trip in many ways, particularly if you are not within walking distance of a home base
Peripheral influencers of “setting” include whether you choose to trip alone or with others, potential medical and mental health concerns and Covid-19 protocols.
Setting intentions before dosing is a critical risk reduction strategy. It’s easy to conceptualize this practice as simply deciding what trip you want or planning how the experience will go. I encourage travelers to instead view intention setting as a means of preemptively giving themselves room to freefall however they need to. This is self-care in the form of anticipating and tending to your own needs, because it’s certainly a lot more difficult to read yourself (and others) while you’re tripping.
An example of this might be that a person who is taking LSD at a festival will give themselves permission to not feel particularly social, leave early, or otherwise have a difficult experience if that is what has to happen – all things that are difficult to wrap one’s head around in the moment when they’re in a limited-time environment that demands socialization and participation.
Alternately, someone who is aware of their own tendencies to be very sensitive to the emotions of their tripping companions might verbally express this to others. They could announce in advance that it’s nothing personal if they spend time alone when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Otherwise subtle interpersonal dynamics can become suddenly tangible while tripping, and setting intentions beforehand opens honest dialogue before it becomes much harder to sort out abstract thoughts while altered.
This can also be done by a person who is tripping by themselves. They can allow themselves the space to have an experience that is uncomfortable, challenging, or not what they were hoping for. Intention setting sets the tone for how you are conceptualizing the trip, allowing you to engage with the experience in whatever way you need to.
Do not go into a psychedelic experience expecting your problems to be solved or for you to be permanently changed. What you get out of an experience is ultimately entirely up to you. While psychedelics may serve as catalysts for personal change, you are still responsible for choosing how to identify and enact that change.
Chapters of a Trip
Depending on what substance you’re consuming, trips can be long. This is particularly true with LSD, which lasts around 12 hours and often requires even more time to completely wear off. There are often distinct chapters within a trip, periods of time with a particular theme or – dare I say it – vibe. Sometimes trips can abruptly move from one chapter into the next with little warning.
It’s completely normal for a psychedelic experience to have many segments. Awareness of this fact going into a trip can reduce the risk of anxiety or panic if things suddenly “shift.” This is particularly prominent during the come-up – a chapter that I refer to as “phasing in” because of the sensation that you are moving out of one plane of perception and into another. This can be physically and mentally uncomfortable, but “shifts” can happen at random at any time.
Sometimes a minor sensory cue or spoken phrase can mark a “shift” into a new emotional, physical, or mental state, an experience that may feel overwhelming or confusing to a person who is newer to psychedelics or altered states. This is a classic part of the psychedelic experience; anticipating and welcoming it can make it feel a lot less jarring.
The more times you trip, the more familiar you will likely become with how these chapters can feel and how you need to care for yourself during each of them. For instance, by the time a person reaches the comedown (or “phase out”) stage of an LSD trip, they will likely be exhausted. Having supplies available to make tea, eat a snack and get cozy can greatly reduce any discomfort from your return to Earth.
I often tell people that there is always a lesson to be learned from psychedelics, regardless of the nature of the experience itself. These lessons can be concrete or extremely abstract. Sometimes it takes a lot of intentional work to pry a lesson from what otherwise seems like a messy, painful trip that felt like it did more harm than good. Retrieving a lesson out of a mess is a lesson, similarly to how voluntarily relinquishing control is control. Generally speaking, whatever your expectations are for a trip that you embark on, it is said that you get the trip you need, not necessarily the one that you want. It’s up to you to think creatively and flexibly about how that could be the case, especially when you feel shaken or drained from a particularly difficult experience.
Integration is the practice of taking what you learn from a psychedelic experience and unpacking it, understanding it, and applying it in your daily life. It is helpful to have a trusted friend or peer who can hold space for you while you talk about what happened during the experience. Alternatively, you can journal, draw, or meditate on it on your own time. Many people miss this critical step in the journey – it is usually in the integration period, not the trip itself, that true change takes place.
It is tempting to push away thoughts of a challenging experience and attempt to avoid it, or to forget about a trip altogether and move on immediately. Unless you feel traumatized, which requires a different level of gentleness to unpack, don’t run from the rabbit hole. Dig deep. Think carefully about who you have been, and who you want to evolve into. If your trip was difficult enough that you want to avoid thinking about it, it’s probably a good idea to consult a mental health professional about ways that you can resolve trauma from challenging experiences.
Tripping with Others or Alone
Psychedelics induce a very vulnerable mind state. For this reason, tripping with others whose character you trust is of paramount importance. Choose companions who are willing to be flexible, eager to participate, and empathetic in their words, preferably people you know well. If you are tripping with people you don’t know very well, it’s a good idea to ask a trusted (sober) friend if they’d be okay with you calling them for support in case of emergency.
Solo trips can be especially emotionally charged because of the lack of social distraction. For this reason, I highly advise having a sober friend who is willing to be called to provide support in the event of emergency or difficulty. When tripping alone, be sure to inform someone of the location, dose, time of consumption, and any preexisting health conditions you might have so that they can inform emergency medical services of your background if something goes awry.
A common thought that people have who are tripping alone is, “what am I SUPPOSED to be doing right now? What is SUPPOSED to be happening?” And the answer is, nothing! There is no wrong way to go through your own process. You are exploring, learning, and playing. Perhaps crying. Maybe laughing. Be gentle with yourself as a solo traveler.
Medical Attention & Covid-19
During Covid-19, there are additional things to take into consideration when deciding whether to trip. This article has a list of precautions that should be noted during this time.
As Covid-19 cases continue to rise, emergency medical services are functioning at lower capacity than usual. For this reason, using harm reduction practices while taking psychedelics has never been more important. Anything that you can do to reduce the likelihood of harm or emergency is essential – this means preparing your set and setting, choosing your company wisely, disclosing any potential medical issues to others, testing your drugs, and dosing conservatively.
Psychedelics & Mental Health Conditions
Individuals who have preexisting or dormant mental health conditions that fall under the umbrellas of psychotic or mood disorders may be at higher risk of having their symptoms exacerbated by using psychedelics. Put simply, psychotic and mood disorders often have symptoms that are brought out by stressors. An intense psychedelic experience might act as a stressor.
It’s unclear whether or not psychedelics are more or less potent stressors than other life events that can bring out symptoms, such as traumatic experiences, chronic anxiety, sleep deprivation, or other physical/emotional strain. Regardless, please be aware of this risk if you are predisposed, and inform others of any family or personal history that you may have with these conditions so that medical personnel can assess any difficulties that arise.
Before taking the plunge, prepare through self-education. Evaluate your set and setting. Choose your team. But most importantly, prepare for the freefall – the unexpected, the unbelievable, the straight-up weird. When you take psychedelics, you are doing the equivalent of traveling to a new location in time and space. It’s going to be strange. Are you ready to not be ready?
Image: Nicki Adams using adapted image from Lightworkerpeace