Set and setting describes the mental, physical, social, and environmental context of your psychedelic experience. It refers to your mindset (shortened to “set”) and the people and places around you (setting) while you’re on a psychedelic drug.
Set and setting have a major influence on your psychedelic experience. If they’re positive, you’re more likely to have a pleasant psychedelic trip. Conversely, a negative, hostile, or frightening set and setting greatly increases the odds that you’ll have a bad time while on psychedelics, even in psychedelic therapy sessions.
Here’s a closer look at why set and setting are important, why they influence your psychedelic experience so much, and how you can create a positive set and setting to maximize your chances of an enjoyable psychedelic trip with a positive outcome.
What are Set and Setting?
Set and setting refer to your mental and physical states while on a psychedelic. Timothy Leary, a psychologist who spent his career advocating for the benefits of psychedelic drugs, popularized the term “set and setting” in the early 1960s. Since then, researchers have adopted the idea of set and setting and consider it an essential part of preparing for a psychedelic experience. 1,2
Set (short for “mindset”) refers to your intentions, expectations, emotions, and overall mental state as you head into a psychedelic trip.
Your mindset has a major influence on your psychedelic experience. If you’re positive, relaxed, open-minded, and curious, there’s a good chance you’ll have an enjoyable trip.
However, if you’re stressed, anxious, irritated, scared, or have rigid expectations for how your time on a psychedelic should go, you’re more likely to have a “bad trip”—a negative psychedelic experience that can range from unpleasant to terrifying.
Setting refers to your physical and social environment while you’re on a psychedelic. It includes both your immediate physical surroundings and the people who are with you while you trip.
Ideally, you want to take a psychoactive drug somewhere safe, controlled, comfortable, and free from stressors or threats. If you’re taking a psychedelic with other people, choose people whom you trust, and whose company you enjoy.
You’ll also want to take care of any obligations head of time. Arrange for childcare if you have kids, make sure you don’t have any work meetings, avoid plans later in the day, and so on. It’s best to clear your schedule when you take a psychedelic.
Why are set and setting important?
With most drugs you’ll get a fairly consistent effect, regardless of your mindset or surroundings.
Psychedelics are different. They’re non-specific amplifiers, which means they intensify everything going on in your mind, positive or negative. Thoughts, emotions, expectations, joys, fears—psychedelics make all of them feel bigger. 1,3
That amplification can be pleasant if you’re in a positive mindset and surrounded by people you love. You may feel a deep sense of love, understanding, oneness with the world around you, and so on.
But if you’re feeling negative or are in an environment that unsettles you, those negative emotions will become more intense as well. You may end up having a very unpleasant psychedelic experience (colloquially called a “bad trip”).
That’s why set and setting matter so much. They have a great deal of influence on how you experience a psychedelic drug.
Set, setting, and bad psychedelic trips
A lot of people worry about having a bad trip while on psychedelics.
Psychedelic studies show that set and setting are two of the best ways to reduce your odds of a bad trip and increase the chances that you’ll have a positive psychedelic experience.
A 2017 study found that people who scored high on neuroticism—which may include anxiety, negative mood, rigid expectations for the future, and a desire to control situations—had significantly more challenging experiences with psychedelic substances. 4 Those who scored lower on neuroticism were more likely to have positive experiences.
Another 2017 study found that an uncontrolled or hostile environment (an unpleasant setting) is one of the leading predictors of a bad trip1.
A 2021 study found that when participants listened to pleasant, overtone-rich instrumental music while on psilocybin, they had a greater chance of having a mystical experience, as well as more positive long-term mental health benefits after their trip. 5
Experiential processing: a good mindset for a psychedelic trip
Psychedelic science has found that experiential processing is one of the best mindsets for having a positive psychedelic experience.
Instead of focusing on having a positive psychedelic experience, go into your trip with the mindset that you can handle anything that comes up, positive or negative, and that if you have negative moments, you’ll stay with the discomfort and explore it instead of trying to escape it.
This mindset is an important shift; instead of trying to control your trip and force it to be positive, you’re recognizing that it may be unpleasant in moments, but that you’re resilient enough to explore those moments with curiosity instead of being afraid of them. 6
Other ways to avoid bad psychedelic trips
The other major predictor of a bad trip is how much of the psychedelic drug you take. Higher doses increase your chances of having an unpleasant experience, possibly because they make you feel more disconnected from your everyday reality, which can be overwhelming. 2
If you’re worried about a bad trip, make sure you take a standard full dose, or even a half dose to start.
It’s also worth noting a common mistake people make with psychedelics. Some people take a psychedelic, feel like nothing is happening after an hour, and then take more.
Psychedelics can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to kick in, depending on your genetics, liver metabolism, how recently you ate, and a variety of other factors. Be patient—taking a second dose because you don’t feel anything after an hour could lead you into a more intense psychedelic experience than you expected.
Set and setting frequently asked questions
Who coined set and setting?
The phrase “set and setting” is credited to Timothy Leary, an American psychologist and writer who popularized psychedelic use in the 1960s. Modern researchers still consider set and setting to be two of the most important parts of a psychedelic experience.
Does set and setting really work?
There’s no way to 100% guarantee a good trip. However, research suggests that set and setting greatly reduce your odds of a bad trip. You’re much more likely to have a positive psychedelic experience if you go into it with an open mind and are in a safe, comfortable environment.
Can I trust the set and setting method?
Yes. Research supports set and setting as two of the most effective ways to reduce your odds of having a bad trip. You’re much more likely to have a good experience if you’re in a positive mindset and a welcoming environment, surrounded by people you know and trust.
Does set and setting work with all psychedelics?
Set and setting works with all classical psychedelics, including LSD (acid), psilocybin (mushrooms), DMT, Ayahuasca, and mescaline (peyote). Research suggests that set and setting are less important for MDMA, which is more a stimulant than a psychedelic and delivers a more consistent drug experience regardless of your mindset and surroundings.
How do I make sure my set and setting are good?
Choose a welcoming environment for your therapy or trip and surround yourself with people you like and trust. Instead of trying to force a positive trip, go into your trip with an open mind and commit to exploring whatever experiences you have, even if they feel scary or negative in moments.
Things to know about set and setting
What are set and setting?
Set and setting refer to your mindset (shortened to “set”) and your physical and social environment (“setting”) when you take a psychedelic drug. A positive mindset and a safe, welcoming environment are two of the best ways to increase your odds of a pleasant psychedelic experience.
Why are set and setting important?
- Psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers—they intensify your thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative.
- If you take psychedelics with an open mind and in a safe, pleasant environment, that pleasantness will be amplified.
- With a good set and setting you’ll likely experience positive effects, like a deep sense of love, joy, or feeling like you understand and are connected to the world around you.
- However, if you take psychedelics with a stressed or negative mindset, or in a hostile environment, that stress, negativity, and hostility will be amplified.
- With an unpleasant set and setting, you’re more likely to experience negative effects, like fear, panic, or a distressing sense of losing control.
- For that reason, it’s important to do everything you can to ensure that you go into your trip with a good set and setting.
Set, setting, and bad psychedelic trips
- Research suggests that set and setting are two of the best predictors of how your psychedelic trip will go.
- A 2017 study found that people who scored high on neuroticism—anxiety, negative emotion, rigid expectations, and a desire to control situations—were more likely to have a bad trip. Those who were lower in neuroticism were less likely to have a bad trip.
- Another study found that a hostile or uncontrolled environment was one of the best predictors of a bad trip.
- Conversely, people who listened to pleasant instrumental music while on psilocybin were more likely to have positive mystical experiences and reported greater improvements in long-term mental health after their trip.
- It may help to go into your trip with an experiential processing mindset. Instead of trying to control your trip and insisting on a positive experience, recognize that you can handle any unpleasant moments that come up, and commit to staying with the discomfort and exploring it instead of trying to escape it.
Other ways to avoid a bad psychedelic trip
Another major predictor of a bad psychedelic trip is taking a high dose of a psychedelic. Research has found that your odds of a bad trip increase when you take a higher dose, likely because you feel more disconnected from your daily reality, which can be overwhelming. Harm reduction should be your trip sitter or therapist’s priority, and they should help prevent you from taking too much of a psychedelic drug.
Final thoughts on set and setting
Set and setting are two of the most important ways to prepare for a psychedelic experience. They’ll increase your chances of having a good trip and help you avoid unnecessary stress, anxiety, and other negative emotion.
And if you go into your experience with a positive set and setting and still have a bad trip, don’t worry—for many people, challenging psychedelic experiences can actually be a good thing.
1. Hartogsohn I. Constructing drug effects: A history of set and setting. Drug Science, Policy and Law. 2017;3:205032451668332. doi:10.1177/2050324516683325
2. Haijen ECHM, Kaelen M, Roseman L, et al. Predicting responses to psychedelics: A prospective study. Front Pharmacol. 2018;9:897. doi:10.3389/fphar.2018.00897
3. Hartogsohn I. The Meaning-Enhancing Properties of Psychedelics and Their Mediator Role in Psychedelic Therapy, Spirituality, and Creativity. Front Neurosci. 2018;12:129. doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00129
4. Barrett FS, Johnson MW, Griffiths RR. Neuroticism is associated with challenging experiences with psilocybin mushrooms. Pers Individ Dif. 2017;117:155-160. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.004
5. Strickland JC, Garcia-Romeu A, Johnson MW. Set and setting: A randomized study of different musical genres in supporting psychedelic therapy. ACS Pharmacol Transl Sci. 2021;4(2):472-478. doi:10.1021/acsptsci.0c00187
6. Gorman I, Nielson EM, Molinar A, Cassidy K, Sabbagh J. Psychedelic harm reduction and integration: A transtheoretical model for clinical practice. Front Psychol. 2021;12:645246. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.645246