Researchers Shocked at How Common Psychedelic ‘Flashbacks’ Are

9% of LSD and psilocybin users report experiencing flashbacks, even years after use.

Zac Whelan
By Zac Whelan
7 Min Read
Researchers Shocked at How Common Psychedelic ‘Flashbacks’ Are
Image: Adobe Stock

The elusive acid flashback story is something most people have heard from an estranged uncle or old school friend from back in the day. Stories that are usually too crazy to believe.

But new research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology has found that psychedelic flashbacks are a “common phenomenon,” affecting approximately 9% of all LSD and psilocybin users. MDMA, amphetamine and escitalopram (SSRI) were also studied, but with less significant findings.

“Drug-like experiences after the administration of LSD and psilocybin seem to be a relatively common phenomenon in clinical trials with healthy participants,” the study authors wrote. “The flashback phenomena observed in this study were transient, mostly experienced as benign and did not impair daily life.”

Participants described their flashback experiences as “predominantly mild” and perceived as “neutral or pleasant.” Symptoms included mild hallucinations, vision and mood changes and transient moments of derealisation/depersonalisation.

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According to the DSM-V (the psychologist diagnosis bible), when flashback phenomena become recurring and distressing, a condition known as hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder (HPPD) becomes diagnosable, of which there are two types; Type 1 HPPD and Type 2 HPPD.

However, just 1.4% of the study participants reported distressing experiences related to their flashbacks, with no cases of diagnosable HPPD occurring throughout the study. These findings highlight previously misunderstood side effects that will now need to be considered before administering psychedelic drugs for therapeutic use.

Flashbacks explained

Psychedelic flashbacks are a complex and poorly understood phenomenon, and the exact mechanisms behind them are not yet fully understood. Some experts believe that flashbacks are the result of changes in the brain’s neural pathways and chemistry that occur during the drug experience.

These changes can lead to a persistent alteration in the brain’s function, which can manifest as flashbacks. Others believe that flashbacks are triggered by external stimuli, such as specific sights, sounds, or situations that were present during the original psychedelic drug experience. For example, someone who had a powerful psychedelic experience while listening to certain music may later experience flashbacks while listening to the same music.

They can also be triggered by internal factors, such as stress, fatigue, or changes in mood. Some people may experience only occasional, mild flashbacks, while others may have more frequent and intense flashbacks that can interfere with their daily lives.

Regardless of the exact cause, it is clear that flashbacks can be a disturbing and distressing experience for some who experience them. They can range in intensity from mild and manageable to severe and incapacitating. It is important to note that psychedelic flashbacks are not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While flashbacks are a potential long-term effect of psychedelic drug use, PTSD is a specific mental health condition that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event.

The psychedelic experience

Since first being synthesised by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1943, LSD has spread across many facets of contemporary society. From underground rave scenes, hippy and pop culture to a new therapeutic treatment option for post-traumatic stress disorder patients, the world’s most recognisable hallucinogen has had quite the journey.

But experimenting with psychedelic drugs is never to be taken lightly. “The psychedelic mind is a higher dimensional mind, it is not fit for three-dimensional space-time,” as Terrence McKenna famously once said. And the thought of randomly slipping back into an acid trip over a family Christmas dinner sounds like a scene torn straight out of a Stephen King novel.

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Imagine trying to explain to your Grandma that the Christmas pudding she made is literally breathing and time is almost certainly trapped in an infinitely expanding loop; no thank you. But the risk of experiencing a random flashback may be worth the benefits of LSD and other psychedelics that psychonauts and researchers have been reporting on for decades.

What’s more, research indicates that psychedelic use is on the rise amongst young adults across the US. “The three major findings in 2020 were that cannabis and hallucinogen use increased, reaching record or near-record highs over the past four decades,” John Schulenberg, University of Michigan Professor of Psychology, told Lucid News. “And college drinking was at an all-time low.”

A growing understanding of the risks, benefits and overall use of psychedelics is positioning researchers to better communicate why these substances should become more accessible for therapeutic uses. And institutions are beginning to wake up to these benefits.

Psychedelic shift

The world is changing at a rapid pace. And so too is the attitude surrounding psychedelic drug use. A recent report conducted by the American Medical Association found that if current legislative trends are to continue throughout the US, psychedelics will be legalised in the majority of states by 2034 to 2037.

Earlier this week, Californian Senator Scott Wiener announced a new bill that will “decriminalize possession & use of plant-based psychedelics in California.” Saying that psychedelics have a “huge promise for mental health & addiction treatment.”

However, this recent bill excludes synthetic psychedelics like MDMA and LSD. “Listen, I would love to have them included… But we also need to be able to pass a good bill. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of stereotypes about LSD and MDMA,” Wiener explained to Marijuana Moment.

“We don’t need a study to tell us that drug criminalization is a failure and that we should decriminalize psychedelics,” the senator told Marijuana Moment in a previous interview. “These drugs literally save lives and are some of the most promising treatments we have for PTSD, anxiety, depression, and addiction. We need to end the outdated, racist, failed War on Drugs and finally pursue drug policies that help people instead of incarcerating them,” Wiener explained.

Zac Whelan
Posted by Zac Whelan Founder & CEO at CONTX Media
Zac Whelan, an Australian art, science and technology lover, spends his spare time drinking gin and pondering on how today's innovations will impact the world tomorrow. A business law graduate from the University of Western Australia, Zac has extensive experience in social media marketing, online journalism and avoiding sharks at the beach.
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