People use psychedelics for a variety of recreational, therapeutic, and personal reasons. Although they are still widely illegal, a growing body of evidence suggests that they may provide numerous benefits.
So, how do these substances work, and what are their effects on the body and mind? In this article, we aim to answer the question “what are psychedelics?” and explain what to expect when using them.
The Psychedelic Experience
Most people associate the term “psychedelic drugs” with a class of substances known as the classic hallucinogens. They include:
- Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
- Psilocybin (the psychoactive chemical in magic mushrooms)
- Mescaline (the psychoactive chemical in peyote and San Pedro cacti)
- N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and DMT-containing ayahuasca
All of these substances produce significant alterations in mood, thinking patterns, and sensory perception. The latter might include visual hallucinations such as swirling colors or kaleidoscopic patterns, the effects that many people associate with psychedelic use.
However, numerous other drugs also produce psychedelic effects. They include dissociatives like ketamine and phencyclidine (PCP), empathogens like 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), cannabis, and more. All of these substances affect the body differently, meaning they produce a more diverse range of effects.
This article will primarily focus on the classic hallucinogens. However, information on a wide variety of other substances is available in our dedicated psychedelics section here at WayofLeaf.
How Do Psychedelics Work?
The question of how psychedelics work has intrigued scientists for decades. Moreover, studying these substances has led to an increased understanding of the human brain. There is still much to learn, but what we do know is that classic hallucinogens bind with serotonin receptors. Therefore, they are sometimes known as serotonergic psychedelics.
The question of how psychedelics work has intrigued scientists for decades.
Although these substances can influence various serotonin receptors, they have a particularly high affinity for the 5HT2A subtype. Since these receptors are located throughout several different brain regions, classic hallucinogens can produce an array of different effects.
Psychedelic drugs’ effects vary depending on the specific substance and the dosage. Other factors such as the user’s mood, expectations, and surroundings can also significantly influence the experience.
As well as the visual hallucinations described above, people may experience an enhancement of the other senses. Music can become all-consuming, and individuals may become more sensitive to touch. Some even experience a blending of the senses, known as synesthesia. The perception of time may also be affected, seeming to pass by more slowly than usual.
Some people undergo spiritual or mystical experiences, whereby they feel an increased connection to nature or other beings. This sensation may be accompanied by an altered or obliterated sense of self, known as ego dissolution, and feelings of euphoria and awe.
However, psychedelics can also cause rapid shifts in mood and induce strong emotional responses. In some cases, this can be overwhelming, disorienting, or even frightening. Some people have an overall challenging experience that some refer to as a “bad trip.” This might include increased anxiety, paranoia, panic, or fear of death.
Although these difficult journeys are often valuable learning experiences, they can be extremely unpleasant at the time. For this reason, it is advisable only to take psychedelics in a controlled and supportive environment. Ideally, the user will enlist a professional guide or therapist who can provide reassurance throughout the trip.
Finally, classic hallucinogens’ activity is not limited to their psychedelic effect. They can also cause physical effects, including:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increased body temperature
- Uncoordinated movement
- Vomiting (especially ayahuasca)
Although these side effects can be distressing, many people feel they are worth experiencing for the potential benefits that can follow. And some, like the vomiting in ayahuasca, are seen as a form of purging out energies that were no longer serving the person consuming it.
Psychedelic After Effects
For a few days after using psychedelics, some people experience an overall improvement in mood, sometimes known as an afterglow. This might include residual effects on the senses and a general sense of wellbeing.
In the long term, people may experience personal and spiritual growth or enjoy improved mental health. For example, research has shown that psilocybin can help treat depression, anxiety, addiction, and more.
Scientists also believe that ayahuasca may have potent antidepressant effects.
However, to experience these benefits, it is essential to use psychedelics in the context of an ongoing therapy program. Sessions before and after ingestion can help individuals set a specific intention for the trip and integrate its lessons into everyday life.
Furthermore, the long-term effects of psychedelics are not always positive. Some users develop a condition known as hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder (HPPD). It can cause flashbacks that vary in severity from mild to debilitating and can significantly impact one’s quality of life. Susceptible individuals may also experience lasting psychosis after using psychedelic drugs.
These potential adverse effects further highlight the importance of responsible use, including mental health screening before ingestion, whenever possible.
What Are Psychedelics? Final Thoughts
Psychedelic drugs have a range of physical and psychological effects. They may bring about positive, long-term changes when used responsibly, although unpleasant side effects are also possible. To minimize the risk of adverse reactions, individuals should use psychedelics in a therapeutic setting with appropriate supervision.
Psychedelics may bring about positive, long-term changes when used responsibly, although unpleasant side effects are also possible.
Please also note that these drugs are illegal in most places, and this article is for informational purposes only. It is the reader’s responsibility to research the relevant laws in their area.