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Why Are Set and Setting So Important?

If you're new to psychedelics (i.e., psilocybin mushrooms) or breathwork techniques that can cause altered states, knowing about Set and Setting should be an essential part of your psychedelic toolkit. If you're an experienced psychonaut, then taking the time to see if you need to refresh your understanding can reinvigorate your experience. But first, what are we talking about?



Set is short for 'mindset,' which is everything about where you're at mentally, physically, and emotionally when you have an experience. Are you stressed, anxious, depressed, happy, calm, or excited? It can also include your intentions for undertaking an activity. Are you doing this for your mental health, spiritual growth, or to have a different view of reality?


Setting is the environment you're in when you have your experience. It's where you are, who you are with, and what is happening around you. Are you in a clinic, a retreat, your bedroom, or a forest? Is it loud or quiet? Who is with you, how are they able to support you, and how do you feel about them?


Together, Set and Setting form the internal and external contexts of your psychedelic experiences (Carhart-Harris et al., 2018). Taking an intentional approach to them is essential because they can enormously influence your experiences when using psychedelics. Regardless of why you might be choosing to go down this path, paying attention to Set and Setting will help you stay as safe as possible and get the most from your experience. So, how can you do that?



Set: What's Inside?


The conventional wisdom on psychedelics is that they can amplify your emotions and bring up thoughts and feelings that you might only be vaguely aware of in everyday life. So "Set" – your mindset – can make a big difference during a psychedelic experience.


Research points to several internal factors that can influence psychedelic experiences. Having a clear intention – knowing why you are using psychedelics – seems to help people have less unpleasant and more constructive experiences (Haijen et al., 2018). Being honest with yourself or any guide/facilitator you’re working with about why you are seeking a psychedelic journey is more important than having the “right” intention. Wanting to move forward after experiencing trauma is a perfectly valid reason to seek out a psychedelic experience. So is wanting to peek behind the veil of everyday reality or have an awesome time with close friends. But these intentions will tend to produce very different experiences. You’ll be doing the best for yourself and the people around you if you’re up-front about why you are doing this.


You don't need to be in a perfect headspace when having a psychedelic experience. (If you did, psychedelics wouldn't be effective at helping people overcome treatment-resistant depression and existential anxiety.) But suppose you are feeling negative emotions or stress when you undertake a psychedelic journey. In that case, you should be ready for a potentially challenging time due to the amplifying effects mentioned above.


In psychedelic-assisted therapy, the work that patients do before an experience is important. Preparation is one of the ways an experienced integration coach can be helpful. If you are new to psychedelics, getting this guidance might be beneficial. If you want to utilize them to address mental health concerns, it is vital to seek this advice.


Set includes things about your mind and brain that are hidden or dormant. That is why being aware of any family history of certain mental health issues is extremely important, especially schizophrenia and related conditions. If this applies to you, it is crucial to seek professional advice and consider not using psychedelics at all.


While most mindset discussions don't mention it, your physical well-being (which isn't really separate from your mental health) is worth considering too. If you're experiencing physical illness, this can change the psychedelic experience, though not always negatively. Likewise, some medications can interact with psychedelics, so it’s vital to take them into account. A good guide or facilitator will always ask about mental and physical conditions, and any medications you use, during intake and preparation. (Please answer them truthfully; it's for your safety & well-being!)


Thinking about Set requires honesty and mindfulness of where you are mentally, physically, and emotionally. Under normal circumstances, we can be pretty good at telling ourselves we feel a certain way when we don't (I know I am). But profound consciousness-altering experiences, such as psychedelics or deep meditation, can easily strip away such illusions and show us how and what we truly feel. There is a widespread representation in mainstream media that psychedelics can help us escape the reality of our lives. And sometimes, it can feel like that. But it's not uncommon to experience the opposite effect, where psychedelics show you your deepest thoughts and feelings in ways that are impossible to ignore.



Setting: The World Around Us


Your immediate environment can profoundly change how you feel during a psychedelic experience. A typical example is that someone under the influence of psychedelics might have difficulty with sensory overload on a crowded dance floor. But they'll often feel better in a quiet zone or chill-out tent.


The importance of the environment is a core component in the clinical settings of psychedelic-assisted therapy. Psychedelic-assisted therapy usually occurs in comfortably and warmly furnished rooms. Participants use eye masks and gentle music to reduce extra distraction. Therapists or guides generally provide a grounding presence but only minimal interaction with the participants during the experience (unless required).


One critical point for Setting is to be somewhere you feel (and are) reasonably safe, relaxed, and comfortable. Your ideal location might be outdoors in nature, at a relaxing wellness resort, or at home. If you choose outdoors, make sure it's a place that is away from people and authorities but is also safe. Dangerous terrain (e.g., high cliffs) does not always mix well with psychedelic journeys. Checking the weather, as you would for any camping trip, is also a good idea. Tripping in the middle of a hurricane or wildfire would be a traumatic and dangerous experience, and is best avoided.


The other important factor in Setting is who you are with at the time. It is possible to undertake psychedelic voyages by yourself. But this can be challenging or frightening if it's your first time or you are not very experienced. The safest way to approach this is to be with someone who is experienced with psychedelics and chooses to stay sober to support you. The right people might be trusted friends, your partner, or an experienced guide. Your intention – why you want to do this – should be a big part of what guides you in your choice of company during the journey.


Sometimes, psychedelic states leave you both physically and mentally vulnerable. I don’t want to bring the mood down. But please trust me when I say that you do not want to be around someone who has boundary issues, is manipulative, narcissistic, or physically threatening while you are on a psychedelic journey. It’s best to choose someone you know really well, or, in the case of a guide, who has a good reputation and that others are willing to vouch for.


Take some time to think and reflect on the Setting - the place and people - that will be right for you and aligns with your intentions and expectations. Your experience will be safer and more positive if you do.



Set and Setting in Everyday Life


Set and Setting aren't only worth thinking about when using psychedelics. When you're in a room painted your favorite color, listening to your favorite music, or hanging out with your best friend, you feel better than you otherwise would. Spaces that are too loud or quiet, or that we find aesthetically unpleasant make us irritable, anxious, or depressed. The flip side is also true: if you’re having a really bad time emotionally, it can be hard to enjoy even the most lavish surroundings or best companionship.


Our entire lives have this quality because we don't exist in isolation. What's going on inside and around us always impacts what we think and how we feel. Our Setting always affects our mindset and experiences. And where we are, internally, has an enormous influence on our perception of the outside world. But this isn’t just about us as individuals. Our actions and choices influence our environment and other people. So, we also influence the experiences, Set, and Setting of others. The lessons of interconnection that psychedelics can bring are not entirely metaphorical; in many ways, they’re quite real.


Non-judgmental and compassionate awareness of our feelings, thoughts, and immediate environment (i.e., Set and Setting) are key elements of mindfulness. Practicing this awareness has many benefits, independent of psychedelics. So, these considerations are worth carrying into your everyday life. Through practice, such awareness can allow better chances for healthy and fulfilling relationships, living conditions that align with your values, and careers that are deeply meaningful. (Mindfulness also has a powerful synergy with both full psychedelic experiences and microdosing but that’s a story for another day.)



Set/Setting Sail…


Set and Setting are significant, even in our everyday, non-psychedelic activities. But we know psychedelics amplify our thoughts and feelings in powerful and sometimes unexpected ways. Where you are at mentally and physically, what your intentions are, where you are located, and who you are with will set the tone for what could be one of the most profound and significant experiences of your life. So, when you are planning on having a psychedelic experience, Set and Setting deserve careful consideration.


Are you interested in exploring psychedelics, but want to take the guesswork out of having the best Set and Setting to match your intentions? Shelley has experience in coaching people through transformative experiences and helping them integrate these lessons into their everyday lives. To learn more or book a free consultation, click here.



References


Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Haijen, E., Erritzoe, D., Watts, R., Branchi, I., & Kaelen, M. (2018). Psychedelics and the essential importance of context. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 32(7), 725-731. doi:10.1177/0269881118754710

Haijen, E. C. H. M., Kaelen, M., Roseman, L., Timmermann, C., Kettner, H., Russ, S., . . . Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2018). Predicting Responses to Psychedelics: A Prospective Study. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 9(897). doi:10.3389/fphar.2018.00897


 

About the Author

Samuel Douglas, Ph.D. is a writer, philosopher, and drug law reform activist. Drawing on his academic background and lived experience, Samuel writes about current events in psychedelics and what they might mean for therapy, society, and the ordinary person just trying to make sense of it all. In 2021, he founded Psychedelic Overground, a business dedicated to providing psychedelic content and copywriting services that are authentic, accurate, and ethical. When not writing, teaching, or volunteering with the Australian Psychedelic Society, Samuel likes to garden and spoil his cat.

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