Decades of research is showing us how important set and setting are in a psychedelic experience. Simply, your environment and state of mind can have a big influence on the potential benefits of any psychedelic journey. One important decision when planning your psychedelic exploration is whether you’ll have a psychedelic experience alone, or in a group setting.
Psychedelic retreats, such as the ones at Synthesis, usually take place in group settings. What are the reasons for this? And why might a group setting be preferable for most people, compared to taking psychedelics alone?
Recently, researchers at Imperial College of London published research exploring the concept of psychedelic communitas which included hundreds of former participants of Synthesis Institute retreats among its subjects to understand how group settings might be beneficial.
Here we run through the pros and cons of taking psychedelics in different settings, and what the research says about the benefits of group psychedelic retreats.
What are the different ways of taking psychedelics?
Part of the infinite complexity of psychedelic experiences is the context in which you decide to explore them. You can take psychedelics alone in your home; with strangers at a rave; with a therapist as part of a research study; in the Amazon with an indigenous shaman; as part of a wellness retreat with friends or colleagues. The possibilities are truly endless.
The demographics of psychedelic use are constantly changing, so it’s hard to say for sure how many people decide to take psychedelics alone compared to those who trip with others. But current research suggests around a third of people choose to trip on their own, a third of people choose to trip in a group (but with no special guidance), and a third of people choose to trip in a group that offers support from a tripsitter or guide (Haijen et al, 2018).
Taking a psychedelic on your own doesn’t necessarily have to be in your own home. People often trip alone in nature, or even in places like floatation tanks or silent meditation spots.
With the growing popularity of psychedelic retreats, and a shift in attention towards personal development and wellness, there’s been a large rise in people becoming more interested in taking psychedelics in a guided setting, rather than at a rave or festival, or on their own.
Why do people take psychedelics alone?
Taking psychedelics on your own goes against the typical psychedelic rulebook. Especially if it’s your first time, it’s very much advised to have a sober sitter or guide with you, to help you through any periods of panic or anxiety. Around a third of people report difficult emotions through taking psychedelics, and while these don’t last and don’t diminish the value of taking them, it is better to have experienced care to support you.
However, some very experienced trippers may decide it’s a natural step to move towards journeying alone. Once someone feels they can comfortably and safely trip on their own, the unique experience of being in isolation or in nature can feel desirable.
While it’s true that having a solitary psychedelic experience could bring you deep insights, it’s also true that psychedelics are unpredictable and there’s always a risk of encountering challenges. Having someone around who can guide you through a challenging experience is always sensible.
Additionally, some insights can only be reached with the help of experienced psychedelic guides or therapists. In many of the clinical research studies that use psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, the participants were able to see such profound benefits partly due to the expertise of the therapists overseeing the sessions. Without therapists guiding the participants towards healthy revelations, we may not have seen such significant decreases in depression and anxiety scores.
In fact, some of the impactful insights can come through speaking to others. At Synthesis, participants say that the group dynamic has helped them to open up in a new way, or see the world through another’s eyes.
So taking psychedelics alone may not provide you with the best opportunity for self-development, and you may risk challenging psychological experiences.
What does a group setting look like?
Although taking psychedelics in a group can be unguided (such as at a rave with strangers, or at a festival), we’re going to focus on guided group settings as this is the safest form of group psychedelic experiences.
Guided group psychedelic sessions probably originated in cultures that used psychedelics as part of their lifestyles or religion. Group sessions were not particularly common at first; most indigenous psychedelic usage took the form of shamans ingesting a psychedelic alone for divination purposes, and sharing their revelations with their community. In some cases though, shamans would administer psychedelics to people in one-on-one sessions, and there are also records of some communities taking psychedelics in group rituals (Highpine, 2013), evolving into the modern group ceremonies we see today.
Group psychedelic retreats are now a popular format because they allow people to access a team of trained guides and support staff in a specialized venue. It can also offer people the opportunity to share their experiences openly in a group, in a safe container, and bond over being in similar situations or facing mutual challenges.
Guided psychedelic group retreats can be highly varied. They can take the form of large groups (30+ people) taking a psychedelic with non-intrusive guidance from amateur trip sitters, perhaps over the course of a day – or they can be more intensive, intimate retreats (5-10 people) held over the course of several days, with more involved support from coaches or therapists.
No matter what kind of group psychedelic retreat you choose, you should at the very least receive a safe and supportive space that allows you to explore a psychedelic experience with a clear intention.
Science supports benefits of a group psychedelic retreat
Recent research has confirmed that group settings can provide people with powerful and transformative psychedelic experiences, and that the uniquely comfortable and supportive environment they foster can reduce the likelihood of challenging experiences and increase the likelihood of improved well-being.
One large survey of several hundred people, carried out by a multidisciplinary team at Imperial College London, shows that a group setting may be an ideal way to help people have a transformative experience (Haijen et al, 2018). The research shows that people who feel more comfortable with their environment, and with the people they are tripping with and being supported by, are more likely to see improvements in well-being following the psychedelic experience.
This study also investigated the power of intention. When people clearly set their intention for their trip – especially if that intention was to connect with nature, have a spiritual experience, or see therapeutic benefits – they were more likely to have an increase in well-being after the session (Haijen et al, 2018).
The research further shows that people who felt comfortable with their environment were less likely to have a challenging experience. Being in a good mood, feeling prepared for the experience, and having lower levels of anxiety, were all factors that helped reduce the risk of challenging experiences (Haijen et al, 2018).
Most group psychedelic retreats attempt to control for all these factors, and design a safe, comfortable environment in which their participants are well-prepared and with clear positive intentions. In these ways, having a psychedelic experience in a carefully crafted group retreat could be more beneficial than being alone.
Group retreats shown to increase mindfulness
More research, at the University of Zurich, has also shown that the naturally-occurring psychedelic psilocybin can be safely and effectively incorporated into group retreat settings. The researchers observed 39 people who were on a meditation retreat, and randomly gave half of them psilocybin on the fourth day of their five day course. They found that psilocybin boosted the levels of mindfulness in the meditators, and allowed them to access significantly more meaningful experiences, with longer-lasting positive changes in their lives (Smigielski et al, 2019).
Synthesis retreats proven to boost well-being and connection
Additionally, Imperial College London’s research using data from Synthesis has shown that taking psilocybin in our group settings produces measurable increases in well-being; a 12% increase after two weeks, and 10% after four weeks, using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale. Our group retreat can also help people feel boosts in connection to themselves, others, and nature; scores on the Connectedness Scale more than double, increasing by 131%, two weeks after the retreat.
Clearly, the benefits of the psychedelic experience can be explored and maximized in a group retreat setting where participants feel safe and supported.
When is a group psychedelic retreat right for you?
Not everyone is suited for a group retreat. Some people are more introverted, and can find themselves overwhelmed by being with other people, or without constant one-on-one support. But many psychedelic retreats offer the opportunity for people to leave the main space if they are feeling overwhelmed, and provide the promise of one-to-one care whenever needed.
Even if you do prefer the thought of solo or more intimate psychedelic experiences group settings offer a human element that is interesting to explore. Even the most seasoned psychonaut might be surprised by the fresh insights they can receive from being in a group setting.
Benefits of Synthesis
At Synthesis, we offer a group setting that gives you comfort and support. Our venue is luxurious, providing you with relaxation and nourishment; our team of coaches and guides are hand-picked to make sure you feel looked-after and at the center of our attention; and our medical team will make sure you are safe from start to finish.
The group psychedelic retreats at Synthesis are an ideal way to introduce yourself to psychedelics, or to explore psychedelic benefits in a supportive and safe environment.