The way you see the world is caused, in part, by the way your eyes react to the light. The solid objects around you also play a role. But the cells of your brain do a great deal of work. They take in the information from your senses, interpret that data, and tell your consciousness what it is that you’re seeing.
It’s a very complicated process, and some drugs hijack that circuitry altogether. When that happens, the entire world looks different. For some, it’s a wonderful experience. But for others, it can be a little frightening. And sometimes, the changes drugs can bring about can be remarkably long-lasting, leaving users wondering if they’ll ever experience the world in the same way again.
When changes brought about by drug use persist, and those changes are so severe that they cause the person either physical or emotional distress, it’s known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD).
What Is HPPD?
People who take some types of drugs experience flashbacks, in which they have brief recurrences of the experiences they once had while under the influence of a chemical substance. One moment, they feel fine. In another, they feel altered. Moments later, they feel fine again.
Those with HPPD experience something that’s just a little different. For these people, the changes they experienced while under the influence never really do go away. They don’t flit in and out of a normal range of experience. They have one set of experiences that lasts for ages.
Typically, the symptoms involve the visual part of experience. People with HPPD might notice:
- Snow or a kind of static in their vision
- Trails of color or light
- Flickering light
- Very bright colors
These sorts of changes might seem temporarily amusing or interesting, but they can have deep consequences. For example, in a study discussed in The New Yorker, the author suggests that up to 65 percent of those with HPPD endure panic attacks due to their visual changes. Up to 50 percent experience major depression. The author suggests that these people desperately want to get back to normal and leave their visual disturbances behind. But since they’re unable to do so, they begin to endure emotional changes. Some even consider suicide.
In most cases, researchers say, the disease develops when people take LSD. There have been multiple case studies published in which a person took this drug on a repeated basis and developed HPPD in the aftermath. In one such case study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, a woman took LSD multiple times when she was 18. At the time of the study, this woman was 33, and she was still dealing with visual distortions.
Newer studies, however, suggest that LSD isn’t the only substance that can bring about HPPD. In one such study, published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers found 31 cases of HPPD that began when users took the drug MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. Studies like this seem to suggest that any hallucinogenic drug might be capable of causing these types of changes, and that means anyone who uses these drugs regularly should use caution.
It’s hard to know exactly how many people who use these drugs will get HPPD, however. In one study, conducted at Utrecht University, researchers suggested that about one percent of users could develop the disorder. But there might be many more who have the condition but who escape the notice of the medical community.
Living with HPPD
The occurrence rates might seem low, researchers at Radboud University Medical Centre say, because many people who have HPPD don’t ask for help from the medical community. Drug use is often seen as a criminal activity, meaning that people who take drugs might not be willing to discuss their use openly, even if they think it might help. Some people might even feel guilty about their former drug use, so they may attempt to live with the disorder as a form of penance or atonement.
Those who have HPPD might use all sorts of different DIY techniques to deal with their discomfort. Some use dark glasses, both indoors and out, as bright light seems to trigger the symptoms. Others resist using computers, as the flickering light of the screen seems to make symptoms worse. Still others attempt to stave off serious attacks by paying attention to fatigue. When they get tired, they rest. When they feel energized, they work.
Since the symptoms don’t come and go with time, people who attempt an at-home cure need to follow these steps all of the time, day in and day out. And that can have a deep impact on the way their lives run. Some people find that they need to change jobs in order to handle symptoms. Others simply can’t work at all. And others find that explaining their choices, over and over, is exhausting, and they withdraw from social support.
It’s easy to see how these kinds of steps could lead to issues of anxiety and/or depression. This disease causes such a huge disruption in the life of people who are impacted, and it can make even simple, day-to-day activities really tough.
Thankfully, however, people who have HPPD simply don’t have to live with the discomfort that the condition can cause. There are a variety of different treatments that can help.
For example, in a study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers say that case reports have identified a variety of different drugs that seem to help, including:
People with this condition might also benefit from therapies in which they combat their anxiety and depression with a combination of exercise, meditation, and counseling. This may not cure the underlying dysfunction, of course, but it can make living with the side effects just a little easier to accomplish.
Of course, the best way to handle an HPPD problem is to avoid starting the condition in the first place. And that means that people who abuse any kind of hallucinogenic drug should get the help they need in order to stop their drug use and abuse for good.
Hallucinogenic drugs may not cause the same kind of flu-like withdrawal symptoms seen with other drugs, but they can still cause psychological addictions that make it difficult for users to leave drug use behind without help. Some users simply crave the changes the drugs can bring about, and others seem determined to get the kind of highs they once felt, whether or not the drug will damage them in the long run.
In a professional rehab program, people have the opportunity to step back from life and really heal. Without daily pressure and responsibilities, they can examine why they might be tempted to self-medicate with drugs.
They might have the chance to rediscover the activities that once brought them joy. And they might begin to really understand that life without drugs could be wonderful.
That kind of work is especially important for people who have underlying mental health disorders. For these people, healing from drugs often means learning how to handle the brain changes that come with illnesses like depression and anxiety. And once the drugs are gone for good, those mental illnesses might fade away, too.
To learn more about the programs that are available for people who have addictions and underlying mental health problems, call the number at the top of the page. Our admissions coordinators are available around the clock to answer your questions and talk with you about how we can help you start a new healthy life in recovery.
Further Reading About Drugs and Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.