HPPD: The Hidden Danger of Psychedelic Drug Use in the 21st Century

“Driving and even walking on the street may not be possible for someone with severe HPPD.” (Savannah Cox)

Bolstered by potentially cutting-edge therapeutic breakthroughs by psychedelic pharmaceutical companies, psychedelics have become not only popular, but increasingly mainstream. And though the evidence that dependency is a risk is murky, psychedelic drugs may have their own set of underreported problems. Whether its MDMA, the psychoactive ingredient in the club-favorite drugs Molly or Ecstasy, LSD, or psilocybin from “magic mushrooms,” many young people (and probably not so young people) are experimenting with psychedelics to gain psychological insights used to promote growth, or through the use of micro-dosing, to enhance creativity and productivity. 

In fact, psychedelics have gained such currency that according to Medical Daily, they “. . . may be about as common now in the United States as it was in the 1960s generation, according to new data analysis. It seems that young Americans today are as apt to use substances like LSD and psilocybin during their lifetimes as their baby boomer parents were in their heyday.”

HPPD and Mental Health

And faced with seemingly insurmountable mental health issues, psychedelics may be literally just what the doctor ordered. Still, hallucinogenic drugs are not innocuous, and there is a possibility for not only abuse, but some evidence for potential long-term damage. Beyond the potential to induce psychotic states, a rare but potential occurrence for people with unknown mental health issues, there is a lesser-known, but still problematic consequence of Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD).

According to the NIH, HPPD happens as “recurrences of certain drug experiences, such as hallucinations or other visual disturbances. These flashbacks often happen without warning and may occur within a few days or more than a year after drug use. These symptoms are sometimes mistaken for other disorders, such as stroke or a brain tumor.” It is the persistent nature of the hallucinations, such as flashes of color, halos around objects, or a “snowy” visual field that are problematic for some people. Additionally, people experiencing HPPD may see tracers or trailers, geometric patterns, and may have difficulty reading, all accompanied by a feeling of unease in some. 

It should be noted that HPPD is a highly subjective experience, so the experience may be pleasant or disturbing, depending on the person and the situation.

Source: vice.com/

One person describes his HPPD in the following manner: “I don’t see my ‘new vision’ as HPPD at all either, it came with far too many beautiful insights, learning experiences and I embraced it from day one. My ‘new vision’ prompted me to delve into self enquiry and meditation and I would work with the visuals to produce a state of calm reflection – this is possible and I truly believe that you get the most out of life when you face the unknown (or your fears) head on.” Some people, on the other hand, see it as a minor annoyance that they have accepted and learned to cope with. 

But others are not so lucky. People may experience severe bouts of anxiety because they feel distressed about their visual disturbances. Some people may have “ . . . trouble perceiving objects moving in space, which gives the illusion of trails, halos and other disturbances that can make everyday activities not just frustrating, but dangerous. Driving and even walking on the street may not be possible for someone with severe HPPD” writes Savannah Cox in her article For Those With HPPD, The Acid Trip Never Ends.

Darian Rolston, who suffers from chronic HPPD, explains that, “HPPD warps the perceptual faculties: the external senses are marred by a constellation of mostly visual distortions, while the internal ones are paralyzed by a concoction of dissociative symptoms, panic attacks, and depression. The doors of perception are not so much cleansed, as Aldous Huxley famously found after his first experience on mescaline, as they are cracked open and left askew.”

HPPD is Subjective

The kinds of experiences people have with HPPD also correlates to which type of “disorder” one has. Type-1 HPPD is characterized by very occasional, brief flashbacks, while Type-2 HPPD, consist of “chronic and recurrent hallucinations which ‘wax and wane’ in intensity over a period of months to years,” according to the Academy of American Ophthalmology. 

It’s also worth mentioning that the occurrence of HPPD is rather low, at least as reflected by the currently available data. According to the National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “The prevalence of this disorder is approximately 4.0% to 4.5% in people who have a history of hallucinogen use.” However, because of the stigma associated with use of hallucinogens, HPPD may be underreported. 

There does seem to be underlying risk factors for HPPD. NCBI states “The most common comorbid conditions are panic disorder, alcohol use disorder, and major depressive disorder.” Yet, the science is far from conclusive. The authors of the report Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder: Etiology, Clinical Features, and Therapeutic Perspectives state that “In many cases, HPPD may also be explained in terms of a heightened awareness of and concern about ordinary visual phenomena, which is supported by the high rates of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hypochondria, and paranoia seen in many patients.” This implies there is a potential for an anticipatory anxiety component that functions as an psychological amplifier of HPPD. 

Marijuana use may also contribute to developing HPPD, though the data is correlative in nature at this point, not causal. In any case, smoking mairjuana while using psychedelics may increase your chances of developing HPPD, so some caution should be exercised in these situations. 

For now, there is a paucity of data regarding the HPPD, so there needs to be more rigorous research on the nature, causes, and potential treatments of HPPD. If you feel that your genetic background or current mental health issues may be putting you at risk of developing HPPD, you should probably avoid using psychedelics. Keep in mind that in the United States, most psychedelics are also illegal, at least on the federal level. 

And, if you decide to pursue the path of exploring psychedelics, it may be best to do it in a controlled therapeutic setting with an experienced, credentialed health professional that you trust. The site https://psychedelic.support/ may be a place to start. 



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