What Does It Feel Like to Get High on Acid?

Acid Trips Are Unpredictable

Image portraying a psychedelic visual illusion typical of an acid trip
Acid trips are often marked by colorful visual illusions. Billy Alexander

Getting high on acid, or LSD, is also known as an acid trip or psychedelic experience, and is technically termed LSD intoxication. An acid trip is a lengthy process, typically lasting 8 to 12 hours, and, with the distortions in time perception that occur as an effect of the drug, the experience can feel much longer, even, for some people, as if it will last forever. This can be highly enjoyable when the mood of the user and those around them is buoyant or contented, but extremely unsettling when moods are low, and thoughts take a somber or even macabre turn.

Unpredictability is the name of the game. Chronic LSD users embrace exploring the unknown and the sense of excitement in not knowing what will happen next. However, people who dislike unpredictability may find the experience of tripping on acid scary, even if nothing overly frightening happens, simply because of the profound distortions in perceptions and thought that occur. If you like to know what to expect, you probably won't enjoy tripping, and should stay away from LSD and other hallucinogens.

Why Do People Take Acid Trips?

LSD is typically used for recreational and social reasons more than for self-medication. However, some people believe that the effects of hallucinogens help them to gain insight into themselves, their lives, and the nature of the universe, and even that it helps them access greater awareness of spirituality. This is a controversial claim, as LSD can trigger a variety of mental health problems, and can trigger feelings of spiritual alienation as well as spiritual awareness.

Those who are seeking enlightenment can get these effects from prayer, meditation, and other spiritual practices, such as fasting, and do not actually need a drug to access these higher states of awareness.

The Difference Between a Good Trip and a Bad Trip

Most people who take acid are hoping, and expecting, a good trip.

The experience of being on acid is often described as dream-like, so one way of understanding the difference between a good trip and a bad trip is to equate it with the difference between a good dream and a nightmare. A good trip can feel pleasant, the world can seem beautiful, life can seem wonderful, human interactions can seem deep and meaningful. In contrast, a bad trip can bring overwhelming feelings of fear, the world can seem harsh, cold, and ugly, life can seem painful, people can seem superficial and cruel.

The emotions that accompany an acid trip, whether good or bad, can seem overwhelming, difficult to control, and as if they will never go away. While this experience can be pleasant if the trip is going well, if a trip goes bad, it can be unpleasant and frightening for the person going through it, and those around them. There can be a fear of going crazy or "losing one's mind," as well as intense feelings of paranoia.

These feelings can seem unbearable to a person who is high on acid, and they may even have temporary suicidal feelings, although death by suicide is rare in people who are high on acid. It may be helpful to reassure someone who is experiencing a bad trip that you are there for them, they are not going crazy, but they are experiencing the effects of acid, and also, that they are safe and no-one is out to get them.

Visual Distortions and Hallucinations

Distortions to the way that you see things is a hallmark of the LSD experience. Visual distortions can take a variety of forms — for example, some appear like an overlay or outline of geometric or swirling patterns, others are described as a change in the perceived size or shape of objects. Others can best be described as static objects appearing to move, such as walls appearing to "breathe."

Sensory perceptions can get mixed up, resulting in synesthesia. Synesthesia occurs when stimuli that are typically perceived through one sense are perceived through another, such as seeing sounds, or hearing smells.

Hallucinations, in which an object or person is seen when they are not really there, can also happen during an acid trip. Hallucinations may come and go in an instant. They could include auditory hallucinations, or hearing things that aren't there; tactile hallucinations, or feeling things that are not there; olfactory hallucinations, or smelling things that are not there; and gustatory hallucinations, or tasting things that are not there. However, visual distortions are by far the most commonly reported type of sensory distortion from LSD.

You can imagine how confusing it is to be surrounded by several types of visual distortions at once. Although people on acid are generally aware that what they are seeing and feeling is part of the drug experience, it can nonetheless sometimes be difficult to clearly differentiate between what is real and what is not real. Usually, people on acid can go with the flow and ride out the visual distortions, which usually get more intense during the first couple hours of the trip, then get less intense for the remaining six or so hours. But sometimes people under the influence of LSD panic, are frightened by what they are seeing, or react inappropriately to their surroundings. It is important for someone in this state not to go off on their own, as they can be prone to accidents and misadventure, sometimes leading to injury or even death.

Changes in Thought Processes

LSD typically changes the way people feel about themselves, other people, and the world, and this can happen in positive or negative ways. How a given individual will be affected is extremely unpredictable. No one takes LSD hoping or expecting to have a bad trip. Although some accept the possibility as a risk worth taking, others do not believe it will happen to them until it does.

As many acid users believe that, having had some good trips, they won't have a bad trip, when a bad trip occurs, it can be a blow to the person's self esteem. Many drug users pride themselves on being able to "handle" the effects of drugs, or think that enjoying drugs like acid is an indicator of a strong or "good" personality. Although this is untrue, when someone with this mind set experiences a bad trip, they may start to wonder if this means that they are a bad person, which can trigger feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, or depression.

The changes that people experience in their feelings about themselves while on LSD is often described as a breakdown of their ego, or sense of self. Previously held beliefs about who you are and what matters to you can shift temporarily or permanently. This is sometimes described positively. People may become more understanding of the plight of others, get in touch with inner strengths, or feel more spiritually connected or enlightened. But the breakdown of the ego can equally be described negatively. People may feel their life is meaningless, that the world is heartless, or that the human race is a ship of fools, and this can be profoundly alienating and depressing.

Occasionally, these feelings can lead to suicidal or destructive impulses. It is very important to keep a person who is high on acid in a safe, secure environment until the effects of the drug wear off. Always call 911 if someone who seems to be having a bad trip goes off on their own, or is in a potentially dangerous environment, for example, if they are able to access heights, bridges, railroads, or heavy traffic. LSD can lead to serious errors in judgment.

Side Effects of LSD Intoxication

Many of the effects described above could be viewed as side effects of LSD intoxication, if the intention of the person taking it was just a "party buzz." Other documented negative effects of acid use are thought to be a result of stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. These include increased heart rate, known as tachycardia; raised blood pressure, or hypertension; and excessive sweating, known as diaphoresis. A dangerously raised body temperature, a condition known as hyperthermia, can occur. There have been a few reported cases of rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which muscles break down and can cause kidney damage, during LSD intoxication. These are medical risks that that potential users should be aware of.

Coming Down from an Acid Trip

Acid trips tend to be quite tiring, and yet it may be difficult to eat or sleep, even during the latter stages of the trip. If the drug was taken in the evening, it is likely that the person will be awake all night, and well into the following day. If it is was taken in the morning, users may continue to feel alert well into the night.

Although the hallucinations, delusions, and other effects of the drug gradually wear off, and normality returns, it is important to stay physically and psychologically healthy, as trips can turn bad even at the end. As the drug can cause excessive sweating, it is important to take in adequate fluid, without drinking so much plain water you risk water intoxication. It is a good idea to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and other substances which can impair your mood and mental state.

Food, when it can be tolerated, adequate fluid, and the company of calm, familiar, non-judgemental people can all help with easing the process of coming down from an acid trip. Relaxing and listening to soothing music can be pleasant and ease the transition to reality. Sleep is important, so winding down and going to bed when able to sleep will help.

Addiction to Acid

Most people who take acid do so only occasionally, and many people are put off taking the drug again after they have a bad trip. Tolerance to LSD develops very quickly, to the extent that users may not experience intoxication if they take the drug on successive days. Unlike most other recreational drugs, withdrawal has not been established for LSD.

Rates of addiction among users of acid are lower than users of other drugs, with fewer than 0.1% of the adult population meeting the criteria for other hallucinogen use disorder. However, the risk of developing an addiction to hallucinogens may be higher for people who start taking the drug during adolescence. There are other long term effects that can occur after taking acid, which indicate that it is not a safe drug to use. The unpredictability of the drug, even on experienced users, partly explains why people do not continue to use the drug on a long-term basis, although it can become one of many drugs that "poly-drug users," people who take many different drugs, use along with other intoxicating drugs.

Longer Term Effects

The effects of taking acid don't always go away when the drug wears off. People who have good experiences often feel it has improved their understanding of themselves, other people, or life, and describe this perspective as life changing. Unfortunately, those who have negative experiences can be plagued with longer term feelings of anxiety, depression, and sensory distortions.

Substance induced mood disorder, substance induced anxiety disorder, and flashbacks or hallucinogen persistent perception disorder are treatable conditions which can occur after taking acid. If you suffer from any of these symptoms, see your doctor for help.

Sources:

Berrens, Z, Lammers, J, White C. Rhabdomyolysis after LSD ingestion. Psychosomatics.;51(4):356-356. 2010. doi:10.1176/appi.psy.51.4.356.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013. 

Fadiman, J. The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press. 2011.

Smith GW, Farrell M, Bunting BP, Houston JE, Shevlin M. Patterns of polydrug use in Great Britain: findings from a national household population survey. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 113(2):222-228. 2011. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.08.010

Stone, AL, Storr, CL, Anthony, JC. Evidence for a hallucinogen dependence syndrome developing soon after onset of hallucinogen use during adolescence. Psychiatric Research. 15(3): 116–130. 2006. doi: 10.1002/mpr.188.

Continue Reading