So this summer’s festival season’s gotten off to a rather tempestuous start.
It’s easy to have a good time on drugs when you’re safe and dry. But when you’re soaked through, cold and miserable, what you’ve taken can amplify any anxiety and general Nope that you’re experiencing and send you down an unpleasant mental rabbit hole.
Fortunately there’s a few things you can do to help keep the vibes up. Managing your set and setting can go a long way to maintaining a good mental state when things go sideways.
Wait, what are set and setting?
Your set and your setting are the states that influence your experience when you take drugs. These mainly apply to psychedelics like LSD, mushrooms, or cactus, but also affect other drugs as well.
If you take your set and setting into account before you take your drugs you can minimise the risks of things accidentally sending your experience down an unexpected and unpleasant track.
Your set is what’s happening with you: in your body, your emotions, and your mental state.
Things that affect your set are:
- Hormones: Regardless of who you are, your hormones and your hormones cycles play a massive role in your mood. Certain medical conditions and medicines can significantly effect this – including
- HRT medications
- PMS and PMDD
- hormone blockers
- perimenopause and menopause
and many more besides these.
- Meat suit maintenance: Being hungry, thirsty, or tired can have a huge impact on your set. The hanger struggle is real, so make sure you’re comfortably rested and have had a snack and some water before taking your drugs.
- Those drugs can make a big change to your appetite so have on hand the kind of snacks that you’ll feel like eating.
- Your physical health: How are you feeling? A bit headachey? Hung over from the night before? How you feel in your body plays a big part in your set as it affects how you feel and how sensitive you are.
- Your mental health: Things like anxiety and depression will have an effect on your set, especially if you’re already taking medication.
Read how HRT affects moods in The effect of hormone replacement therapy on cognition and mood, Sharma et al; Clinical Endocrinology (2023)
Read how hormones that you make yourself affect mood in Health related quality of life and depression among premenstrual dysphonic disorder (PMDD), Sharma & Pathak, International Journal of Health Sciences (2022)
Read how GAHT affects moods in Centering the Needs of Transgender, Nonbinary, and Gender-Diverse Populations in Neuroendocrine Models of Gender-Affirming Hormone Therapy, Aghi et al; Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging (2022)
Read how being hungry affects moods in Hangry in the field: An experience sampling study on the impact of hunger on anger, irritability, and affect Swami et al, PLOS One (2022)
What you resist persists
Your state of mind and general mental health is a large part of what makes up your set.
You know that thought experiment when someone tells you not to think of pink elephants, so naturally it’s the first thing that comes to mind? You’re trying so hard NOT to do something, that you wind up doing the thing anyway.
Psychedelics can do the same thing, except in terms of emotional and psychological processing. If you’re keeping something bottled up, psychedelics will find the bottle and open it. Especially if you’re taking a high dose.
This can be either super confronting and overwhelming, or super cathartic and liberating, depending on whether you’re expecting it or not. If you’re not expecting it, it can drag you into a negative spiral which can be hard to pull out of.
Read about LSD and ketamine-assisted psychological research being done at Auckland University
Read about psilocybin-assisted therapy research being done at Johns Hopkins medical school
Your setting is what’s happening around you: Your physical surroundings, the people you’re interacting with, the weather, and so on. Your favourite comfy chair, the temperature outside, and your friends are all things that contribute to your set.
Things that can affect your setting are:
- Temperature: Is it too hot? Too cold? Just right, except that you have to have your feet out from under the covers where the monsters can bite them?
- Inside or outside: If you’re inside, do you have enough comfy things to sit on? If you’re outside, are you dressed for the weather? Do you need to take a coat or wet weather gear with you? Sunblock? Insect repellant?
- People: If you’re venturing into the outside world, there will be other humans around. These humans may or may not be sober. They also may or may not be humans that you want to interact with in a non-sober state. Having a sober person with you can help navigate these situations.
Find out more about set and setting
Read Constructing drug effects: A history of set and setting by Hartogsohn et al on Sage
Read Set and Setting: Why Context Matters in Psychedelic Therapy by Harry Simmons on the Wavepaths website
Surviving and thriving when things go wrong
If your experience does go in an unexpected and unpleasant direction while you’re at a festival, there are a few things you can do
Your tent can be your sanctuary
Vans or cars can be the perfect way to ensure a warm, dry place to call home for the duration of the festival. But if you’re going for the tent option, you can take steps to make sure you have a warm, dry place to retreat to and recover in.
Add a layer under your tent
Nothing says ‘misery’ quite like having things get a bit intense, needing a bit of quiet time, and finding your tent’s flooded. Everything you were relying on to make you feel better is now cold, wet, horrible, and smells kinda wrong.
You have a couple of options to keep water from seeping up into your gear through the floor, depending on how much kit you want to carry.
If you want to travel light, putting an extra tarp down in your spot before you put your tent up will keep water from seeping up through the floor and into your everything. You can make a “tarp” by cutting bin liners open so they sit flat.
If you don’t mind some extra weight, putting your tent up over a pallet will give you height enough to keep your kit dry.
Creature comforts can make all the difference
If you’re at a festival for 3 days or longer, having a comfy place to live in is vital for your sense of wellbeing.
Being comfortable might not be Hardcore [™], but if your experience goes down an unpleasant rabbit hole, or you’re just plain overstimulated and need a break, having a little snug nest to chill out in is worth its weight in gold.
You can get cheap inflatable mattresses from places like The Warehouse that pack down small and will keep you from finding every stone under your tent with your back while you’re trying to sleep.
Also, sleeping bag liners are a must. They don’t have to be fancy, you can bring a sheet and fold it up inside your sleeping bag if you don’t want to go too bougie and buy a ready-made liner. But as long as there’s something between your skin and the sweaty, sticky nylon that the inside of your sleeping bag is made of that can feel really weird when you’re in an altered state, you’re all good.
Don’t forget your hot water bottle, either. Not only is it great to come home to a warm snuggly bed after a night’s dancing, but when it gets hot during the day you can fill it with ice water and use it to help yourself stay cool. And if the weather takes a turn for the worse, you’ll have something to keep you warm.
Low light > Bright light
If you’re starting to feel delicate, bright light can be super confrontational. It can also do unpleasant things like bring on headaches, which can add another layer of horrible to the negative experience.
If it’s daytime, sunglasses, broad-brimmed hats, and shade are your friends. You can’t turn the sun down, but you can put things between you and it.
If it’s night time, fairy lights produce enough light to be able to see by, but aren’t as searing a head torch can be.
Toilet paper and baby wipes. Yes, really.
Ok, one thing spells ‘Misery’ more intensely than coming back to a sodden tent when your drug adventure is taking a turn for the worse. Getting to the portaloo while you’re in an altered state and finding there’s no toilet paper.
If you need to pee, it’s not so bad. There are worse things than drip-drying. But pooping without some way to clean yourself afterwards when your brain isn’t playing fair is adding insult to injury.
If you don’t have giant pockets to fit a roll of toilet paper, those little handbag-sized packs of tissues are worth more than their weight in gold. They fit in your bum bag alongside those mini bottles of hand sanitiser.
Using baby wipes to clean the mud off your feet when you go into your tent will help keep your snug nest from getting feral and filthy. If you’re sober, you might not mind. If you’re coming down and your serotonin’s gone AWOL, coming home to a cozy nest that’s covered in mud you’ve tracked in earlier might just be the thing that makes you burst into tears.
Trip sitters and Psychedelic first aid
If you find yourself getting a bit too far into your own head it can be easy to get stuck in negative thought loops. Same as if your body starts reacting to the substances you’ve taken in unexpected ways, like if you’re taking MDMA and the dose is a bit heavier than you anticipated and you get the eye-jitters.
These can intensify if you’re in a confronting environment like a festival. Which in turn can lead to becoming completely overwhelmed and tipping into what’s politely known as ‘a difficult experience’.
A trip sitter is someone who hasn’t taken any drugs (including alcohol) that comes with you on your adventure.
They’re good to have as a touchstone for reality-based things, like
- how much time has passed,
- how much sunblock you need,
- when to hydrate,
- you are actually mortal and fire will burn you, and
- how gravity works against you if you climb things you’re not meant to.
Psychedelic first aid
Psychedelic first aid operations like Deep Space or the Zendo Project are dedicated to helping people that are having a negative experience.
They’re trained to offer emotional support to people who are having a hard time. They’ve also got sensory things to help you ground back into your body, like snacks and cups of tea, weighted blankets, and a quiet place where you can chill out for a while.
If you’re trip sitting for friends and someone’s experience starts going sideways there are a couple of things you can do to help them come back to their baseline.
When people start getting anxious their breathing speeds up. This gets more oxygen into their bloodstream, triggers the body for a fight or to flee, and can make them dizzy. When they’re also on drugs, this can be a frightening and strange experience, and make things worse.
Box breathing is where a person breathes in for a count of four, holds their breath for a count of four, breathes out for a count of four, then holds their breath for a count of four. Repeated three or four times this kind of breathing can calm someone down to a point where they can talk about what they’re feeling and get it off their chest.
Read how box breathing works:
Effect of Box Breathing Technique on Lung Function Test: Ahmed et al, 2021; Asia Pacific Science Library
The Effectiveness of Diaphragmatic Breathing Relaxation Training for Reducing Anxiety: Chen et al, 2016; Perspectives in Psychiatric Care
Sensory focus points
If someone is caught up in a negative loop, giving their senses something new to focus on can short circuit their spiral. These should be pleasant but strong-tasting. Having something like a super hot chilli or the stinkiest blue cheese would distract the person spiralling, sure, but not in a constructive way.
- Sweet could include things like chocolate, lollies, honey, soft drink, or fruit
- Sour could be things like sherbert or citrus fruit
- Salty could be things like chips, soy snacks, or jerky
- Bitter could be things like salt and vinegar snacks
This is a little harder to work with than taste because it requires a bit of prepping or ingenuity if you’re out in the middle of a field at a festival.
Things you can make for a smell short-circuit are
- Body spray or perfume sprayed into the cap of the bottle or can
- Sniff bags made out of things like lavender and rosemary leaves
(Tea bags will do in a pinch)
Get your friend to touch something, and describe what they can feel under their hands. You can also do this with feet as well.
This sometimes works better than their hands because feet have different levels of sensitivity in different areas and people need to concentrate on what they’re feeling a bit more.
Get your friend to focus on what they can hear close to them and list them to you. Then what they can hear further away. And then the furthest thing from them.
Pick something that you can both see. Get your friend to describe the thing in as much detail as they can, starting with basic shape and colour.
Get more tips on grounding
30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts, Raypole 2022, Healthline
One thought on “Set, Setting, and the Suck: How to avoid negative experiences at festivals”
Amazing advice, amazing photo 😅 Thanks for some rop quality holistic harm reduction right here x