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People begin to abuse illicit drugs for a wide range of reasons. Some choose drugs that will relax them, like opiates or alcohol, while others select stimulant drugs, like cocaine or methamphetamine. Another class of drugs that people choose to abuse for recreational purposes is the hallucinogen class – drugs that make people see, hear, and otherwise sense things that aren’t really there.
While some people believe that hallucinogens and the “trips” they take users on are safe compared to other drugs, there are a number of risks and negative effects that can occur from using hallucinogens. Many of these negative effects can continue long after hallucinogen use has stopped. For this reason, it’s helpful to understand what hallucinogens are and how they work when trying to help someone who may be struggling with hallucinogen abuse or addiction.
Hallucinogens are drugs used specifically to immerse the user in fantasy experiences or hallucinations; in other words, they cause the person to see, hear, feel, and otherwise experience things that aren’t actually present. Use of hallucinogens to achieve this state is often called “tripping,” because this type of drug use can cause the individual to feel that the body has been left behind and the spirit is encountering these visions or experiences on another plane.
Hallucinogens are used for a number of reasons, including spiritual or religious ceremonies in which visions are sought as part of a specific ritual; natural forms of these drugs found in plants have been used for this purpose by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. However, in modern times, these drugs are often applied to a party-going experience in an attempt to make the lights, sounds, and other experiences on the club scene more intense.
Whatever the reason for using hallucinogens, it is important to understand what they are doing to the body and brain to cause the experiences that the users seek. These physical and mental effects can result in a number of problems, including the potential for addiction.
While there are multiple different kinds of hallucinogens, they basically all affect one of two pathways in the brain. The first is the serotonin pathway, and the second is the glutamate system.
Serotonin is a chemical that regulates many of the body’s basic functions, from mental cognition and thought processes to digestion and sleep patterns. According to Psychology Today, hallucinogens like LSD that interact with this system stop the activity of serotonin – an event that also occurs when a person is asleep and dreaming. While the dreamlike visions created by use of these hallucinogens is similar to the way dreaming occurs during sleep, there is little understanding of how these hallucinogens actually work. In fact, there could be a number of other systems involved. However, because serotonin affects so many other functions of the body, hallucinogen use can disrupt many of those functions by interfering with the pathway, including causing problems with:
Glutamate is a chemical that facilitates the brain’s ability to send messages back and forth through the body, and it is important in learning and memory. According to a study from the Industrial Psychiatry Journal, this chemical is suppressed by the use of hallucinogens like ketamine, which can result in hallucinations. Nevertheless, the full mechanism through which this occurs is not understood at this time.
Other brain chemical pathways affected by hallucinogens include the dopamine and GABA systems, both of which are implicated in the development of substance use disorders such as addiction.
There are a number of different types of hallucinogens that come from different origins and that are used in different circumstances, from serious religious and ceremonial uses to recreational pursuits. No matter why or how they are used, or which parts of the brain they act on, these drugs create similar basic responses in the body as described above and carry many of the same risks described below.
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Hallucinogens are used by approximately 15 percent of people 12 and older over the course of their lives. On the other hand, according to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1.7 percent of people report having used a hallucinogen within the past year.
The most frequently used hallucinogen is LSD, with 9 percent of people using it over the course of their lifetime, and 0.5 percent engaging in use within the previous year. Ecstasy is next, at 6.6 percent lifetime and 0.9 percent past-year prevalence, and PCP is generally used by 2.4 percent of people over their lifetimes.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the risks of hallucinogen abuse include:
Another potential long-term effect is HPPD, or hallucinogen persisting perception disorder, which can result in visual and other disturbances that last long after hallucinogen use has stopped. For many, this annoyance – which can include seeing halos around objects, light trails, and fuzzy or static blurs over the environment – can become extremely upsetting and contribute to the potential for depression or suicide.
As described above, abuse of hallucinogens usually occurs in religious or spiritual rituals, or at parties. They are used either to facilitate spiritual experiences or to enhance sensory stimulation in a party atmosphere.
Many people who use hallucinogens do so in safe spaces set up to allow for a “watcher” – an individual who keeps an eye on the person who has used the drug. This is because sometimes trips can turn bad, with the hallucinogenic effects creating something more of a nightmare, rather than a dream-like state.
Bad trips last as long as the drug has an effect in the body, but there can be a challenge if the person who has used the drug begins to have flashbacks of that experience. This is another negative effect of hallucinogen use.
It is possible to become addicted to hallucinogens because of the way they affect the dopamine system. Like with many other drugs, this can lead to tolerance and addiction. However, it is possible to treat this addiction through professional, research-based rehab. This includes therapies such as:
With these treatments, a person can learn to deal with the chronic nature of addiction and return to a positive life without using hallucinogens, finding meaning and purpose again in the real world.
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