What Is The Psychedelic Therapy Container – And Why Is It Important?
If you’re beginning a journey with psychedelic medicine, you may have heard the term psychedelic therapy container. Many facilitators and clinical providers use this term when speaking about guided psychedelic use. However, don’t feel discouraged if you’re not totally clear on what this means.
The container is a wide-ranging term that encompasses many aspects of the psychedelic medicine experience. Whether in a clinical setting or traditional ceremony context, feeling like you’re in a safe, supportive, and ethically-created container is paramount for a transformational experience.
But what exactly does it mean? Let’s explore.
Contents of this article
What Does The Psychedelic Therapy ‘Container’ Mean?
A container, in its literal sense, is a structure that holds something together. It keeps contents safe and free from manipulation.
In the context of psychedelic medicine, the psychedelic therapy container encompasses all aspects of the journey that contribute to the participant having a safe and transformative experience.
“Providing a safe space for the client to self-explore and process emotions is an utmost priority for psychedelic therapy,” says Dr. Sam Zand, D.O., clinical psychiatrist and Co-founder of ketamine clinic, Better U.
“The “container” is everything surrounding the psychedelic experience. It is comprised of the client’s physical being, psychological mindset, environmental factors, and spiritual components. Without a container, we lack the structure and therapeutic power that psychedelic medicines hold,” he explains.
Why The Container Is So Important
While many people might be familiar with the concept of “set and setting” — your mindset going into an experience and the physical setting around you — the container is more than this. The psychedelic therapy container includes the guides and facilitators that accompany and support you before, during, and after a session. It includes the intentions and practices that you bring to your preparation and integration.
“A container is an energetic holding of space for possibility,” says Natasja Pelgrom, visionary leader and founder of Awaken the Medicine Within retreats and programs.
Pelgrom compares the container to a taproot.
“Your whole body and system, both emotional and spiritual, is rooted to the depth of the soil that you’re in and the type of soil it is. That represents the work that you do on yourself,” she explains.
“A doctor isn’t going to fix your broken arm. But they will tell you to rest and give you a cast so your arm can heal on its own. That’s literally the container,” she adds.
So, what makes up a safe container?
Creating A Safe Psychedelic Therapy Container For Psychedelic Journeys
A safe psychedelic therapy container for guided journeys and sacred medicine ceremonies don’t happen by accident. They take a concerted effort, planning, and design on the part of facilitators, and require commitment from journeyers. Many individuals are seeking psychedelic medicine for deep healing and trauma recovery. This means making a safe environment and support structure around the experience paramount.
Let’s take a look into some of the key parts that make up a safe psychedelic therapy container. These are a few things you should be on the lookout for if you’re seeking guided work with psychedelics.
Before a retreat accepts a person or begins working with a psychedelic guide, participants undergo a thorough intake process. This process usually includes a questionnaire to get a general idea of the physical and mental health of the journeyer. It also included their overall goals for the experience. This survey also typically highlights any health or drug contraindications.
In many cases, the intake process also involves a call with a facilitator. This is to get a deeper understanding of the person’s intentions for the ceremony or session.
“We have an extensive intake process in all of our retreats. There are three to four layers of this process that create safety,” says Natasja Pelgrom. “Safety is about understanding someone’s mental, emotional, and physical state, so you can see what contraindications there are.”
“Then we look at the kinds of intentions and expectations our clients have. The initial process of impersonal intake forms to calls with a facilitator, going into a semi-medical and psychospiritual approach — all of that creates a seriousness that ensures you as a participant know we’re doing our due diligence,” she explains.
Preparation & Integration
Part of providing a safe psychedelic therapy container also means supporting clients with their preparation and integration on either side of the retreat or session. This may be done by the facilitator themself. Likewise, it may be with an integration specialist — some retreats have in-house integration providers working with participants.
Proper preparation and integration can be the difference between a transformative experience that helps you create long-lasting change in your life, and a wasted opportunity that was never fully alchemized.
“In our practice with betterUcare.com, it is our integration guides’ responsibility to help our clients create the safe, exploratory framework for their ketamine experience. It starts with bringing our physical state to a place of calm and relaxation,” explains Dr. Zand.
“For days leading up to the session, we encourage a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition, hydration, activity, and sleep hygiene. We recommend detoxifying the body and mind,” he says.
At Awaken the Medicine Within retreats, Natasja Pelgrom explains that the team works with five guiding principles prior, during, and after the experience. These are safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness, and empowerment. Pelgrom explains that these qualities are present at every step, including during the preparation calls with participants through to the integration process.
It’s good practice for retreat centers or psychedelic guides to include integration sessions into their offering. This is to support participants following their experience. These might be 1:1 or group calls that take place in the weeks and months after the session(s), with some retreat centers even holding monthly integration circles for their alumni.
Set, Setting, & Dose
A safe container in the context of psychedelic medicine also covers the container of the session or ceremony itself. What is the mental, physical and emotional state of the person going into the experience? What is the physical environment like? And what kind of dose and quality of medicine are they receiving?
When it comes to mindset, there are many physical, mental, and spiritual practices that the participant can do to help them enter the session with an open, clear mindset.
According to Dr. Zand, “it is very important to detoxify ourselves, decrease any inflammatory responses in the brain, filter our mental nutrition, prepare for a relaxing day with no stressors, and open our hearts and souls to the wonder and awe of life.”
The facilitators or guides may also help their client to relax the mind and body before ingesting the medicine.
“Immediately prior to the session, we lead breath work, meditation, and intention setting exercises. Once the body relaxes, the mind is more open to the power of the psychedelic experience,” says Dr. Zand. “We ask our clients to be aware of the negative thoughts they hold and to start to author the new empowering thoughts they want for themselves.”
Another way this can be done is by creating time for participants to “land” and settle into the space after arrival.
For example, retreat centers might ask their participants to arrive at the center a day or two earlier than the first ceremony, as opposed to jumping straight into taking the medicine.
The “setting” around a psychedelic journey is the physical environment, the people present, and any music or sounds. The physical space should be calming, comfortable, private, and free from hazards or disruptions of any kind.
Depending on whether the medicine comes from a clinical setting or traditional context, the physical space will differ greatly. The most important aspect here is safety — especially with medicines such as 5-MeO-DMT, journeyers often lose sense of their surroundings, and accidents can happen.
“As far as the environment, we encourage our clients to avoid any disruptions, turn their phones on airplane mode, wear an eye mask to enhance the inward journey, and use headphones with meditative or trance-like music. They are in a safe, quiet room with peer support nearby,” says Dr. Sam Zand.
The number of people present at group ceremonies is a crucial aspect of the “setting” too. “Most of the time, we work with 10 people at our retreats,” says Natasja Pelgrom. “Because we’re so attuned to the group constellation, we might stop enrollment at eight or nine people, because that’s what creating a safe container means.”
“If there are three or four people with a specific type of trauma or type of work, we understand that we have to take responsibility over how that dynamic might influence the totality of the group,” she explains.
Finally, the dose is a crucial element in creating a safe psychedelic therapy container. The dose of medicine should be measured against the participant’s experience level, healing journey, and intentions for the session. While a heroic dose might be best for one person, something more gentile may be better for another participant.
“Sometimes, the cleaner the body, mind, and emotions of a person, the more gentle dose you can give,” says Pelgrom. “As a facilitator, do you understand the somatic? Do you understand the trauma that someone might be holding? How might this come out in a psychedelic ceremony? Do you understand that what serves an individual sometimes is a lower dose, to work with the ally, instead of something happening to my physical body?”
“Safety is not always five grams [of dried mushrooms] or a heroic dose. It’s not always about crashing the default mode network and having a mystical experience,” she adds.
Finding The Right Psychedelic Therapy Container For You
The style and elements of a psychedelic therapy container will vary from one facilitator to the next, but some common aspects should be present across all contexts.
A safe psychedelic therapy container is, ultimately, one where the participant receives emotional and/or spiritual support. This means there’s autonomy over their decisions, is safe from physical or ethical misconduct, and whose individual journey is recognized, seen, and heard by the guide or facilitator.