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LSD: Nirvana or burnt out?

Dear Alice,

I've recently dropped acid about 5 times a week for oh... about 3 months now. I have grown mentally and spiritually in ways unimaginable. But friends tell me I am in a false reality now; this brings me off my trip although I now only trip mentally (without the drug). In your opinion, has acid hurt me or helped bring my level of consciousness to a higher level? Am I reaching a state of Nirvana or am I simply a burn out? Please answer this question... I haven't the gall to ask anyone else.

sincerely,
Zeldar

Dear Zeldar, 

Unfortunately, it’s not a simple task to gauge if your drug use is helping you reach a state of nirvana or burning you out. Though you feel that LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, has helped you grow spiritually and mentally, it may also be causing you to struggle to differentiate between reality and falsehood. Repeatedly using LSD might cause flashbacks and other health risks which may occur on their own or as a symptom of Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD). As such, it may be best for you to refrain from using LSD, use it less frequently, or exercise heightened caution if you do continue to use. If you’re concerned about your health or your experiences with LSD, you may wish to speak with a health care provider or mental health professional. 

Ergot—a fungus that commonly grows on rye—produces a chemical called lysergic acid; this acid is then used to produce LSD. Sometimes referred to as “acid,” LSD is a psychedelic drug that can be found in liquid, pill, gelatin, or paper form. After it’s consumed, it typically takes an hour to kick in, with trips lasting up to twelve hours. Soon after ingestion, it targets the neurons in the body that are responsible for regulating the production of serotonin—a “feel good” hormone which promotes feelings of happiness and calm. As such, it’s no surprise that many people who use LSD report that it improves the way they view themselves and the world. 

Oftentimes, people experience flashbacks after taking LSD that many describe as relaxing and temporary. In fact, these sensory changes are the most common long-term effects following LSD consumption. However, people who take the drug can also have unpredictable and bad trips that may cause distress. Additionally, they may suffer from a series of harmful health consequences including increased heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety, confusion, and terror. While there’s no lethal dose of LSD, it’s still possible to overdose as someone builds up a tolerance for the drug and needs to consume more to feel the effects.   For most, an LSD overdose will look similar, if not identical, to a bad trip: the person may experience disturbing hallucinations that can result in accidents, self-mutilation, or even suicide attempts. Some people may also experience different symptoms during an overdose if they combine LSD with other drugs such as PCP or alcohol. 

It’s possible that you feel you’re reaching nirvana because you’re experiencing flashbacks even when not using LSD due to residual amounts of the drug in your system from previous trips or due to HPPD. Flashbacks may mirror those experiences you have during your LSD trips. You may experience halo effects and bright spots of light across your visual field, flickering patterns, or falsely perceived motion in your peripheral vision. HPPD is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a rare post-hallucinogen intoxication disorder that occurs after stopping LSD use. There are two types of HPPD: Type 1 involves temporary flashbacks over a short period of time while Type 2 is more chronic. Diagnosis is rare both because of the DSM's strict criteria and because many health care providers are unfamiliar with HPPD. Though treatment options are limited due to a lack of research, potential approaches include medications such as benzodiazepines, antiepileptics, clonidine, and naltrexone.

When it comes to drug-induced altered consciousness, it’s also worth mentioning an unclear and complex relationship between LSD use and mental illnesses. It appears that LSD use may either exacerbate pre-existing mental illness or encourage their onset if they have yet to present. Additionally, many former LSD users with HPPD continue to experience panic attacks, anxiety, or depression beyond their trips. Current research suggests that people with family histories of anxiety, visual issues, and concentration or attention problems may be more at risk for HPPD. With the support of a mental health professional, a person can explore their relationship with LSD and work to develop positive and productive habits. 

If it’s an altered state of consciousness that you stive for when taking LSD and are interested in doing it in a drug-free way, you still have options! Many people from different cultures and religions pursue a form of spiritual enlightenment where they can feel free of pain. Some options include: 

  • Hypnosis. The idea of clinical hypnosis is that a person’s behaviors can be influenced by suggestions from someone else. This process usually involves reaching a point of deep relaxation and strong focus. Whether or not a person is able to be hypnotized often depends on how they perceive obedience, conformity, and responding to suggestions. 
  • Sensory deprivation. Sometimes people are able to alter their state of consciousness by reducing the stimuli that affect their senses. Besides relaxation and meditation, this practice is also used to treat medical issues (like insomnia or muscle pain) as well as some addictive behaviors. However, it’s important to note that extended periods of sensory deprivation can lead to confusion and hallucinations. 
  • Meditation. Perhaps the most well-known out of these three processes, meditation involves focusing on something specific (like your breathing, a word, or an object) until you reach a state of relaxation and well-being. Meditation is very common in some religions and is typically practiced in order to reach a higher state of spirituality. Outside of a religious context, it’s often used to reduce depression and anxiety while improving well-being. 

How powerful your experiences are with these practices can vary. Some people reach a low-intensity state of enlightenment in which their surroundings feel more “alive.” Others reach a much more intense state in which they feel one with themselves and the universe. Nevertheless, no matter which level of consciousness you reach, you may find that these practices can help you in coping with negative emotions. 

In terms of whether or not you've reached nirvana, that's difficult to say, as spiritual experiences such as those you've described are individual. Reflecting on the effects of your LSD use on your day-to-day life may help determine its overall impact on your health beyond the spiritual ones you've noticed. For example, how do you function on a daily basis? What, if any, physical or mental symptoms do you experience that may impede your functioning? If you want to further discuss your concerns about how your LSD use may affect your experiences of the world and how you function within it, you may find it helpful to speak with a health care provider or mental health professional. 

Best of luck! 

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Last updated Aug 04, 2023
Originally published Mar 23, 1995