Psychedelic Benefit Maximization: Beyond Harm Reduction
Updated: Feb 12
Benefit maximization is a series of practices around psychedelic experimentation designed to create a framework that increases the potential for healing and growth to take place. Up until now, practices for benefit maximization focused mainly on integrative practices. This is because new beliefs and habits are easier to form and make actionable after an altered state of consciousness. However, it is now being recognized that the integration process starts before a profound altered state even occurs. Establishing a benefit maximization mindset also starts long before a substance is ingested.
However, before benefit maximization can become relevant, it is important to address harm reduction needs. Harm reduction is a series of practices around substance-use that aims to reduce, not eliminate, potential harms. These practices include: reagent testing, the buddy system, needle-exchanges, and sanctuary spaces at large events. The goal of harm reduction is safety. Once basic safety needs are met, then the focus can shift towards benefit maximization of psychedelics - how can we make a psychedelic experience have the largest, longest lasting positive impact?
Benefit maximization is important because it increases the healing and growth potential of psychedelics. Attending a medicine ceremony in another country is a huge undertaking; benefit maximization practices work towards the goal of ensuring that the most good comes from that experience. A peak experience is an altered state of consciousness characterized by euphoria, often achieved by self-actualizing individuals. The concept was originally developed by Abraham Maslow in 1964, who describes peak experiences as "rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter." Some people do not have the luxury of experiencing multiple peak psychedelic experiences in their lives so it is important to make the most of them if the opportunity does arise.
Here are several benefit maximization techniques our team at Altered States Integration has found helpful and recommend to our coaching clients:
Setting an Intention
Asking yourself why you want to take a psychedelic can guide setting an intention statement. This intention will guide decisions related to your experience and let you mindfully engage with the medicine. Some people like setting a very specific intention, while others prefer something more broad. If you pick a very specific intention, you have an opportunity of getting a clear answer to whatever you are hoping to learn from the experience. While setting an intention is important, psychedelic substances are sometimes unpredictable in the delivered experience, therefore intentions need to include open-ended expectations. Psychedelic journeyers commonly talk about getting the "trip they needed" vs "the one they wanted".
Need help setting an intention? Get more help here.
Incorporating New Skills
Incorporating a beginner’s mind and cultivating a willingness to develop skills can help in maximizing the benefits of psychedelics use. Learning new life skills has been scientifically shown to increase neuroplasticity - the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. Focusing on developing new skills prepares the mind to accept new messages received in the psychedelic space. Increasing one's aptitude to new situations can help manage difficult or uncomfortable moments that may occur during an altered state of consciousness.
Infants and adolescents have the ability to take in a huge amount of information and quickly learn from it. Then, as we age, we become more rigid in our worldview and loose neuroplasticity. This is also in part due to a decrease in teachability, or the willingness to learn, that affects one's ability to process new ideas. Teachability is a measure of attitude more than intelligence or ability. It is the willingness, desire and hunger to learn, unlearn, and relearn in the pursuit of mastery. Striving to be more teachable and open to change is the cornerstone of benefit maximization. It is similar to the concept of buddhism "a beginner's mindset". Psychedelics have been shown to increase neuroplasticity; an increase in neuroplasticity is theorized to correlate with an increase of one's abilities to break out of old habits, and form new, healthier patterns of behavior.
Exploring behavioral therapies complements psychedelic medicine. Many skills used in popular therapy modalities can be studied, learned, and applied in a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach. Empowering oneself to develop skills that help in the healing journey can look like: setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals, developing mindfulness practices, journaling, and exploring healthy coping mechanisms. Seeking out directed self-study programs like this DIY Coaching Bootcamp, can prepare the psychonaut for profound healing by increasing neural-flexibility and support learning. Look for live programs that offer accountability and encompass a wide range of skills.
Working with a Knowledgeable Support Person
This harm reduction technique is also a benefit maximization tip. Be careful and considerate with solo journeys. Working with someone knowledgeable about altered states can really enhance the healing potential of a psychedelic experience. Not only is it safer to work alongside a support person, they also can create a more conducive container for the psychedelic experience. Support can help with getting water, going to the bathroom, or writing down key takeaways. Shamans are reported to be able to enhance and direct the psychedelic experience with their songs and musical instruments. It is important to discuss boundaries and expectations with your support personnel long before you consume anything and are altered.
There is a large difference in experience and skill level of psychedelic support figures but all can serve to maximize benefits if used in a skillful way. Shamans, sitters, and your 45-year-old Deadhead uncle could all serve to enrich your experience depending on who you are and what outcomes you are hoping to achieve from your psychedelic experience.
Seeing a Coach or Therapist
Using a psychedelic coach is a great way to create an environment designed for benefit maximization. Coaching is a powerful growth accelerator. Psychedelic coaches work with you to derive an intention for the experience, plan an optimal set and setting, and provide integration and aftercare. Having a therapist or coach that is experienced with both altered states and integration, is really helpful towards framing your psychedelic experience in a way that promotes growth and change. Coaches and therapists will work with you to set growth goals and actionable steps to achieve them. They will help track your progress and provide a valuable framework for the entire process. A good coach adds value to clients by generating the most forward momentum from a large psychedelic epiphany. Learn the difference between a psychedelic coach and therapist here.
Using Sessions Prompts & Questions
Creating a list of ideas you’d like to explore under the influence of the medicine is one way to keep the focus of your session on your intention. An integration journal is a great place to write down things you want to ponder in the psychedelic headspace. This list of questions can help lead you towards crafting your intention statement. If you have a sitter, consider having them ask you questions once you are "in it" and then write down your answer to the questions. Later during the integration process, referring back to these questions can facilitate a wonderful opportunity to connect with the wisdom that is inside yourself. If you choose to solo journey, just reading the questions can help guide you into exploring difficult topics that you are hoping to find healing from.
Documenting the Session
It can be very difficult to remember all of the information received during an altered state. Recording your session is another way to get the most out of an intense psychedelic experience. While not always possible, using a phone to record the entirety of your session, or making an audio recording, offer a great opportunity for benefit maximization. Having a scribe is another way of keeping track of important revelations obtained from psychedelics. This may be a task completed by your sitter or by another observer. With shorter experiences, roles can switch between sitter and journeyer.
These records can then serve as a re-entry point for further integration later. Reviewing trip reports months or years later will continue to deepen the lessons learned. Revisiting session notes and integration notes is one way of creating a portal into the self without having to take more of a substance.
Journaling is a huge part of the self-reflection process and is a catalyst for inspiring growth. Similar to recordings, it offers you the opportunity to go back and reexamine your thoughts surrounding a psychedelic experience at a later time. Psychedelic journaling is helpful because writing down an experience starts to create a narrative around your experience. As we start to tell a story a meaning will emerge. A good journal serves as a roadmap of where we have been and guides us forward in our journey with a sense of purpose.
Your journal is also a great tool for skill tracking and development. Altered state experiences can offer insights into behavioral changes but it can be hard to see progress if we are not actively tracking (potentially problematic) behaviors or desired habits. Writing down and tracking any sessions focusing on learning a skill can accelerate growth (this is my approach). Taking notes to track the day, session and any takeaways. Being disciplined and diligently tracking progress exemplifies commitment to the healing process. Learn more about psychedelic journalling here.
Having a solid mindfulness or meditation practice is a great way to further maximize the benefits from psychedelics. Mindfulness helps in every aspect of life but is particularly applicable to psychedelics because it can prepare one to delve into their subconscious. Yoga is a type of movement meditation that is helpful for cerebral people who tend to get stuck in their head. Long term practitioners of yoga report incredible healing from returning to the body every day to see what wisdom can be found within. Fostering a mindful awareness increases the powers of observation that are valuable while navigating an altered state of consciousness. Mindfully “letting go of that which does not serve you” can aid in traversing the tumultuous, challenging thoughts that can arise during a psychedelic trip. Continuing these mindfulness based practices after the ceremony will serve as another entry point for integrating any lessons learned into daily, ‘default’ life.
Benefit maximization is the natural next step after addressing harm reduction, both being improved with a mindful approach. Being benefit-oriented informs the entire psychedelic experience from start to finish. Just like harm reduction, there is no end point, processes can be updated and continually refined to better serve the intentions of the journeyers. Incorporating benefit maximization practices into how you approach psychedelic healing can provide great results. While everyone will have a slightly different approach to benefit maximization, savoring the process will provide the best results. Really lean into finding out how to maximize YOUR experiences. As always, integration is essential to long lasting change!
Many people will not have a large number of psychedelic experiences, therefore, it is important for these experiences to make the most impact. It is often expensive and difficult to access psychedelic substances. Benefit maximization, if implemented properly, can mean more healing with fewer substances or sessions needed. Focusing on increasing benefits adds value to each experience. Keeping an eye on maximization of benefits is essential to avoid the need for continually reengaging in psychedelic medicines in a way that promotes spiritual bypassing as well.
There will always be new ways to try to squeeze extra benefits out of a psychedelic session. What techniques have you found help you maximize your psychedelic experiences impact? Tell us your neurohacking tips! Leave us a comment or email us.