How to have a safe psychedelic trip
NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS What to do The most effective way to minimise the risk of a bad trip occurring is to prepare well. The Johns Hopkins advice is for guides and therapists to discuss the broad range of psychological effects that can be experienced under the influence of a psychedelic, including out-of-body sensations, the evocation of powerful memories, distortions to time and space, and feelings of oneness with the world, to name but a few. It’s also important to pay due attention to what Leary called ‘set and setting’. Most relevant to the preparation phase, ‘set’ describes the mindset and intention you bring to the psychedelic journey, and an experienced guide will work on this with you. The ‘setting’ refers to the physical, social and cultural environment in which the user takes a psychedelic drug. ‘Are you entering the experience with a certain need in your life? Do you want to explore something? Do you need healing? Do you have an emotional relationship that is problematic, burdened by childhood issues?’ asks Bourzat. ‘Do you want to be connected more with spirits or explore your relationship with nature? You don’t have to have a pathology to have an experience, but it’s a good idea to know why you’re doing it. What are you looking for in the journey? That’s the preparation.’ Other basic aspects of preparation, she adds, include writing a journal and preparing the body by fasting and avoiding alcohol. The journey Researchers have known about the importance of the ‘setting’ in the psychedelic experience for decades. In a series of studies published in 1960, Robert Hyde, a doctor at Boston Psychopathic Hospital, spent three years observing how the effects of LSD varied in different contexts. For instance, in the second year of his research, volunteers were treated as ‘research objects’ and given structured tasks to complete, whereas in the final year, the experience involved more chance for relaxation and personal support from and rapport with the researchers. Needless to say, the final year was generally associated with positive psychedelic experiences whereas the second year led to more unpleasant outcomes. If you take a hallucinogenic drug at a party, even the attitude – the ‘set’ – of your friends could influence the ‘setting’ and thereby make a difference to your own experience. A field study in 2002 found that, on the rare occasions when people taking MDMA/ecstasy at parties reported bad experiences, this usually coincided with the user’s friends having pessimistic expectations or concerns about the trip. ‘A sense that another user, particularly a friend or acquaintance who is part of the collective, is not having a pleasant experience may have a deleterious effect on the group as a whole,’ the researchers said. When it comes to a more formal, guided psychedelic journey, Bourzat explains that the setting is literally where the journey is happening: ‘What is the location? Who is sitting with you? Who is helping? What is the expertise and style of the guide? It also includes the length of time … What is guiding the work? Is it nature? Is it someone singing for you? Is there music playing? Is it quiet? All these different elements create the setting.’ She adds that commonsense steps to take include ensuring that the room is comfortable with soft furnishings and that any music is conducive to a pleasant experience. ‘I wouldn’t play rock and roll or house music. It should be expansive, not just classical but also more contemporary, or new age or tribal, African, Tibetan – anything ambient that’s conducive to introspection,’ says Bourzat. If you have any frightening experiences or difficult overwhelming emotions, the usual advice is to surrender to these rather than trying to suppress them or run away from them. ‘Whether the disturbance consists of frightening illusions or internal imagery, difficult thoughts and feelings about some past or present personal issue, or anxiety related to a radical change in sense of self (eg, temporary loss of self-identity), the volunteer is encouraged to mentally surrender to the experience, trusting that her or his usual state of consciousness will return when the drug effects resolve,’ state the safety guidelines from Johns Hopkins University. Integration Following your psychedelic journey, it’s critical that you process the meaning of your experience with a guide or therapist. This ‘integration’ should take place during the two to three months after your experience. ‘When people take drugs recreationally, like just go to a festival and take LSD and then go home, that’s where they tend to run into problems because there’s a lack of integration of the experience,’ says Sessa. One of the key aims of integration, Bourzat explains, is to carry the beneficial aspects of the psychedelic journey into everyday life. ‘If someone had a beautiful experience of nature, and in the journey they experienced beautiful birds, a meadow, then I would say you actually need to do that in your life. You need to cultivate that experience, and maintain that goodness that you connected with in the journey,’ she says. ‘Or say someone connected with a loved one they had lost, and felt love and tenderness and dealt with unfinished business in the journey, then I would suggest some ritual in real life – writing to the deceased person or beginning a journal and making that part of their life.’ Gael notes that integration therapists have different approaches and backgrounds. It’s important to find a guide or therapist whom you trust and who is nonjudgmental. ‘One helpful resource for finding integration support is the Psychedelic Support [network],’ she says.
NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS Key points – How to have a safe psychedelic trip
Remember that psychedelic substances are illegal in most jurisdictions.
If you have physical or mental health issues, speak to a sympathetic doctor before experimenting with psychedelics. People with a history of psychosis or bipolar disorder are usually not allowed to participate in psychedelic research trials because they face heightened risks.
Ensure you are in a physically safe, controlled environment. Always start with a low dose.
Don’t take psychedelic drugs on your own. Find an experienced guide or therapist whom you trust.
Use word of mouth at psychedelic societies and elsewhere to source psychedelic substances safely, and use online testing kits to ensure their quality. Alternatively, for greater safety, consider signing up to a research trial conducted at a university.
Remember the importance of set and setting. Work with a guide who will help you prepare for your psychedelic journey, sit with you during the experience, and conduct integration with you for several weeks or months afterwards.