Psychedelics, also known as hallucinogens, are a type of drug that trigger visual and auditory changes while altering perception, thoughts and feelings. Common psychedelics include Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mushrooms, 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and Mescaline.
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Psychedelic drugs are popular across a wide variety of demographics for many decades. In fact, psychedelic drugs became well-known due to the Summer of Love, a 1967 social and art movement in San Francisco focused on challenging conservative social values and experimenting with drugs and sex. Here are common ways psychedelic drugs are used:
- Recreational Use: For many decades, psychedelics have been used for social and recreational use. It’s often reported that people use the drugs for fun, out of boredom or to escape challenges of their life.
- Spiritual Endeavors: In some cases, psychedelic drugs are used for spiritual practices, religious ceremonies or indigenous shamanic rituals. For example, Ayahuasca is a brew of psychedelic substances that is used as traditional medicine among the indigenous Amazon people.
- Artistic Inspiration: Poets, artists and writers have taken psychedelics as a way to spark creativity, new ideas and inspiration. Even Steve Jobs, former tech CEO of Apple, was known for using LSD, which some say helped with the creation of the iPhone.
- Therapeutic Uses: People who suffer from mental conditions or emotional stress may take psychedelic drugs to cope. In some cases, these drugs have been used as formal therapy. While it is not legal or commonly practiced today, scientists have studied psychedelic drugs to see if they can help achieve therapeutic results to regulate mood or anxiety disorders. For example, National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse said there is small, emerging research that suggests Ayahuasca may be a potential treatment for mental health issues, but there hasn’t been research conducted at a large-scale to validate this.
Despite its popularity, most people do not understand the science behind these drugs, how it impacts the body and why it produces the associated effects. Though most are not physically addicting, some psychedelic drugs can be psychologically addicting and can come with serious risks. Can psychedelics cause long-term damage to the brain and lead to mental health disorders?
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Why do you trip on psychedelic drugs?
“Trips” are commonly referred to as the hallucinogenic effects and experiences when taking psychedelic drugs. After taking these drugs, the effects happen within 20 to 90 minutes and can last anytime between 6 to 12 hours. Unwanted or discomforting experiences while using these drugs are known as “bad trips.” But what is the science behind these trips and why does it make people hallucinate?
According to research, psychedelics work because they temporarily disrupt signals between the chemical systems in your brain and your spinal cord. Depending on the drug, they can also interfere with serotonin, which is the chemical that regulates sensory perception, sleep, body temperature, hunger, muscle drive and sex drive.
What if a trip doesn’t end?
According to urban legends, there are cases of people who take psychedelics and experience trips that never end. As a result, the user has a distorted perception of reality even when the substances exit the body. Could this tall tale happen in real life?
Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, or HPPD, is a condition in which a person has continuous or occasional flashbacks following the use of hallucinogen. A person with HPPD has recurring sensory disturbances similar to the ones from past trips. As a result, a person with HPPD may experience distress that negatively impacts their everyday life.
While people who have HPPD experience the effects of prior trips, they are usually not severe enough to have someone detached from reality. Someone who has HPPD can experience distortions with their vision, but they are technically not classified as hallucinations. For most people with HPPD, they are aware that these visuals are imaginary and are in tune with reality. It’s worth noting that it is possible for someone to show signs of HPPD and not have a history of taking hallucinogens.
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Can Psychedelics Cause Psychosis?
Psychosis is a severe symptom in which thoughts and feelings are altered, causing a person to lose touch with reality. While it sounds similar to HPPD, they are very different from each other as HPPD is more about experiencing the residual effects of psychedelics. Typically a person with HPPD may see halos or trails around various objects, which is not the case for psychosis. Could hallucinogens cause psychosis? According to research, it is unlikely to happen.
Psychologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology combed through data from the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an annual survey of the general population, and analyzed answers from more than 135,000 people who participated from 2008 to 2011. Among this pool, 14 percent of those surveyed said they used psychedelic drugs such as LSD, mushroom and mescaline. Researchers found that people within this group were unlikely to develop signs of mental health issues such as psychosis along with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts and schizophrenia. So why is it commonly assumed that psychedelics cause psychosis? Researchers of this study believe that because mental health issues are so common, roughly 2 in every 100 people, there was a mistaken association between psychedelic drugs and mental health disorders.
Another study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, also looked at NSDUH
data closely examining 190,000 respondents from 2008 to 2012. Researchers of this study discovered that psychedelics did not have any association with mental health issues. In addition, it found lower rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts among people who used LSD and psilocybin.
Matthew Johnson, author of the study and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, said, “We are not claiming that no individuals have ever been harmed by psychedelics. Anecdotes about acid casualties can be very powerful — but these instances are rare.”
Despite Research, Psychedelic Drugs Should Be Approached with Caution
While psychedelic drugs can cause residual effects similar to experiences from tripping, they are unlikely to influence mental health issues. Regardless of this research, it’s still important to be aware that these drugs are illegal in the U.S. and can still have detrimental effects. While they may not be physically addictive, there are chances someone could be psychologically addicted to psychedelics. Also, many people who are already addicted to other drugs may explore psychedelic drugs, putting themselves in more danger. According to his study, Johnson concluded the suggested harms of psychedelics may have been overstated, but an unpleasant bad trip and the potential repercussions are worth avoiding.
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