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What is a ‘flashback’?

“One of our friends swears they had a flashback a couple of weeks after we all took a trip. He got really freaked out and had to go home from a party. We all took the same thing and none of us had it happen to us. Could this have happened and why did it happen to just him?”

Ever since LSD was first used a minority of users have reported flashbacks. A flashback refers to a usually brief and sudden sensation of re-experiencing the effects of the drug after the original ‘trip’ has ended. This usually occurs in the days or weeks after taking LSD or other hallucinogenic drugs such as ‘magic mushrooms’ (psilocybin), although some people report it happening months or even years later.

Most of what we know about flashbacks is based on case reports of individuals seeking help with these experiences or studies involving chronic users of LSD, as well as those with underlying mental health problems. Although there are some people who report that these experiences were intense and unpleasant, causing them significant and severe problems, others report that they lasted just seconds or minutes and were far easier to control and manage than their original hallucinogenic experience. In most cases, once the episode passes, they usually don’t happen again.

Unfortunately, a minority of LSD users, as well as users of other psychedelic drugs, can develop a condition called Hallucinogen Persistent Perception Disorder (HPPD). A flashback is usually infrequent and episodic, HPPD is persisting and long-lasting. This condition can be permanent and can significantly affect a person’s health and wellbeing. Sound and other perceptions are usually not affected but it is the visual phenomena that is reported to be uncontrollable and disturbing, with some people reporting constantly seeing ‘visual snow’ or ‘haloes’ across their field of vision. Some experts believe there’s a genetic link related to HPPD and that taking LSD ‘unlocks’ the condition. This could explain why in some cases people have developed HPPD after taking just one dose of LSD. Sadly, due to the fact that we really don’t know what causes this often life-changing disorder, there’s currently no cure.

We’ve still got a lot to learn about the impact that LSD and other psychedelics may have on those who choose to use them. Although some young people regard this group of drugs as ‘a bit of fun’, they can be powerful and, in some cases, may result in permanent changes that adversely affect people for the rest of their lives.

First published: January 2024

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