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Hallucinogens, also called psychedelics, are a diverse class of drugs that alter awareness and perception.  It comes in two forms: synthetic (human-made) and natural.  LSD is an example of a synthetic hallucinogen, while shrooms and peyote are natural hallucinogens.  These drugs produce visual and auditory hallucinations, feelings of detachment from oneself and the environment, and a distorted perception of time and space.  In addition, hallucinogens can be split into two categories: classic hallucinogens (like LSD) and dissociative drugs (like PCP).  All psychedelics can cause hallucinations (images and sensations) that seem natural and last for a few hours.

They may also cause visual and auditory hallucinations, a sense of timelessness, and feelings of detachment/disconnection.
They may also cause visual and auditory hallucinations, a sense of timelessness, and feelings of detachment/disconnection.

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Hallucinogen Use

Hallucinogens are used for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Recreational use (to deal with stress, escape daily life, or relieve boredom)
  • Spiritual connection (to achieve enlightenment, connect with a higher power, or induce a detachment from reality)
  • Therapy (to boost mood and relieve symptoms of mood disorders)
  • Creative inspiration (for art, poems, writing projects, music, etc.)

Side Effects of Hallucinogens

Hallucinogenic drugs are known for causing sensations such as seeing images or hearing sounds that are not real.  The effects of psychedelics typically start within 90 minutes but can begin after just 20 minutes of ingestion.  The results can also last up to 12 hours. Hallucinogenic experiences vary widely from user to user.  For example, some people experience “bad trips,” which result in paranoia, anxiety, and frightening hallucinations/thoughts.

Short-Term Effects

Some common short-term effects of hallucinogens include:

  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Distorted Sense of Time
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Heightened Sensitivity to colors and lights
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Spiritual Connections
  • Panic
  • Paranoia
  • Increased Sweating
  • Sleep Issues
  • Vivid Dreams or Nightmares
  • Strange Behavior
  • Poor Coordination
  • Dry Mouth
  • Relaxation
  • Psychosis (detachment from reality)
  • Increased Blood Pressure
  • High Body Temperature and Breathing

Long-Term Effects

When used long-term, hallucinogens can affect the body in a few ways:

  • Persistent psychosis, including visual disturbances, disorganized thinking, paranoia, and mood changes.
  • Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) is spontaneous, recurring flashbacks that come without warning and may occur within a few days or more a year after drug use.

How Do Hallucinogens Affect The Brain?

Hallucinogens temporarily disrupt communication between brain chemical systems throughout the spinal cord and brain. 

Some of these drugs also affect the brain chemical serotonin, which controls your:

  • Body Temperature
  • Sexual Desire
  • Appetite
  • Overall Mood
  • Sensory Perception
  • Sleep
  • Intestinal Muscle Control

Dissociatives affect the brain chemical glutamate, which controls your:

  • Environmental Response
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Emotions
  • Pain Perception

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Types of Hallucinogens

The most common types of hallucinogens include:

  • AL-LAD:  is a psychedelic drug with similar properties to LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).  It was first synthesized in 1976 and has become a popular drug in the ‘research chemicals’ and ‘new psychoactive substances’ market.  It is not scheduled as a controlled substance at the federal level in the U.S.  However, it can be considered an analog of LSD – meaning that sales or possession with intent for human consumption may result in prosecution under the Federal Analogue Act.
  • LSD:  disrupts the interaction of serotonin and nerve cells, causing hallucinations, heightened senses, and other intense physical and mental effects.  Users experience a distorted sense of reality and increased responsivity to external stimuli. LSD is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substance Act.
  • Ayahuasca:  is a combination of the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and leaves of the Psychotria Viridis (chacruna) shrub. “ayahuasca” comes from the Quechua language, spoken in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru.  The Amazonian people have used it for religious and spiritual purposes for hundreds of years.  Westerners have teamed up with shamans in the Amazonian rainforest to curate ayahuasca retreats to heal mental or physical illness.
  • Dissociatives: drugs are a class of hallucinogens.  These psychedelic drugs alter the user’s perceptions of reality.  They may also cause visual and auditory hallucinations, a sense of timelessness, and feelings of detachment/disconnection.  Some dissociatives are illegal, while others still have medical uses.

  • Phencyclidine:  better known as PCP, is an illegal, synthetic, psychoactive drug.  It is a dissociative hallucinogenic, different from class 1 hallucinogens, such as psilocybin, LSD, peyote, and DMT.
  • DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine): is a naturally occurring hallucinogenic compound.  DMT is the primary component in ayahuasca, which is a tea-like brew consumed orally.  It can also be synthesized into a smoked crystalline powder, or more rarely, injected or snorted.  Recreational users believe that DMT has potential health benefits.  However, there is very little research on DMT’s addictive properties.
  • Peyote Cactus:  Peyote is a spineless cactus native to Southern North America and one of the oldest known psychedelic drugs.  Indigenous people of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States consider the cactus divine and used it often in religious ceremonies.  The word “peyote” is a Spanish word derived from the Nahuatl term “Peyotl.”
  • Shrooms:  are ‘magic mushrooms’ that contain the psychoactive ingredient psilocybin.  It is converted to psilocin in the body, which affects the central nervous system by altering the interaction of nerve cells and the neurotransmitter serotonin.  Effects vary considerably depending on several factors, including the mushrooms’ type, age, and dosage.

*Salvia divinorum is a plant with psychoactive features.  One can feel the effects of chewing, smoking, or using the leaves in tea.  In addition, the leaves contain opioid-like properties that produce hallucinations.

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Other Effects Of Hallucinogens

Short-Term Effects of Classic Hallucinogens

Classic hallucinogens can cause users to see images, hear sounds, and feel sensations that seem real but do not exist. The effects generally begin within 20 to 90 minutes and can last as long as 12 hours in some cases (LSD) or as short as 15 minutes in others (synthetic DMT). Hallucinogen users refer to the experiences brought on by these drugs as “trips.” If the background is unpleasant, users sometimes call it a “bad trip.”

Along with hallucinations, other short-term general effects include:

  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Nausea
  • Intensified feelings and sensory experiences (such as seeing brighter colors)
  • Changes in the sense of time (for example, the feeling that time is passing by slowly)

Specific short-term effects of some hallucinogens include:

  • Increased blood pressure, breathing rate, or body temperature
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Dry Mouth
  • Sleep Problems
  • Spiritual Experiences
  • Feelings of Relaxation
  • Uncoordinated Movements
  • Excessive Sweating
  • Panic
  • Paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
  • Psychosis—disordered thinking detached from reality
  • Bizarre Behaviors

Long-Term Effects Of Classic Hallucinogens 

Two long-term effects have been associated with the use of classic hallucinogens, although these effects are rare.

  • Persistent Psychosis—a series of continuing mental problems, including:
  • Visual Disturbances
  • Disorganized Thinking
  • Paranoia
  • Mood Changes
  • Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD)—recurrences of specific 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.

Both conditions are seen more often in people who have a history of mental illness, but they can happen to anyone, even after using hallucinogens one time. For HPDD, it can use some antidepressant and antipsychotic medications to improve mood and treat psychosis. In addition, behavioral therapies can help people cope with fear or confusion associated with visual disturbances.

Short-Term Effects of Dissociative Drugs

Dissociative drug effects can appear within a few minutes and can last several hours in some cases; some users report experiencing drug effects for days. Effects depend on how much is used. In low and moderate doses, dissociative drugs can cause:

  • Numbness
  • Disorientation and loss of coordination
  • Hallucinations
  • Increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature

In high doses, dissociative drugs can cause the following effects:

  • Memory Loss
  • Panic and Anxiety
  • Seizures
  • Psychotic Symptoms
  • Amnesia
  • Inability to move
  • Mood Swings
  • Trouble Breathing

Long-Term Effects of Dissociative Drugs

Researchers do know repeated use of PCP can result in addiction. Other long-term effects may continue for a year or more after use stops, including:

  • Speech Problems
  • Memory Loss
  • Weight Loss
  • Anxiety
  • Depression and Suicidal Thoughts

How Is A Hallucinogen Addiction Treated?

There are no FDA-approved medications to treat addiction to hallucinogens. While behavioral treatments can be helpful for patients with a variety of habits, scientists need more research to find out if behavioral therapies are effective for addiction to hallucinogens.

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Medicinal Uses

Potentially. Some hallucinogens have been studied for possible therapeutic benefits in treating mental disorders such as depression. For example, ketamine was approved many years ago as an anesthetic for painful medical procedures. In March 2019, the manufacturer-backed the medicine esketamine (called “Spravato”) to treat severe depression in patients who do not respond to other treatments. However, Esketamine is closely related to the drug ketamine, which is used illicitly, and so there are concerns about the potential for abuse of this newly approved medication. In response, ketamine will be limited to administration in medical facilities.

Symptoms of Hallucinogen Misuse

Hallucinogens can easily be abused.  Symptoms of abuse can include:

  • Neglecting responsibilities and hobbies to abuse hallucinogens
  • Spending a significant amount of time obtaining, using, and recovering from hallucinogen abuse
  • Sudden aggressive or violent behaviors
  • Attempting to stop abusing hallucinogens (but failing to do so)
  • Physical symptoms like vision problems, nausea, dizziness, numbness, sweating, muscle spasms, respiratory depression, and increased heart rate
  • Cognitive symptoms like amnesia, poor focus, coordination problems, dissociation, hallucinations, and paranoia
  • Psychosocial symptoms like agitation, mood swings, loss of interest in hobbies, social withdrawal, and irritability

Treatment For Hallucinogen Addiction

“Bad trips” may require the user to be hospitalized.  Here, trained medical staff will help them “come down” by placing them in a safe and secure room with minimal sounds and motion. However, it should monitor the client directly to ensure that they do not harm themselves or others.

In the case of “flashbacks” or HPPD, there is currently no known medical treatment.  However, studies suggest that some anti-seizure medications, including lamotrigine and clonazepam, may provide lasting relief.  Recommended treatment options also include mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and talk therapy.

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