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Is It Possible to Become Addicted to Psychedelics? 2 Dec 2016

Is It Possible to Become Addicted to Psychedelics?

When we talk about mind-altering substances, we’re usually referring to substances in one of two categories: depressants or stimulants. Depressants are the substances that depress the central nervous system, including alcohol, benzodiazepines, prescription painkillers, heroin, and numerous other substances. Meanwhile, stimulants are substances that stimulate the central nervous system, meaning that these substances cause an increase in energy level and alertness; common examples of stimulants include cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, stimulant pharmaceuticals for ADHD, and other such substances. To most people, depressants and stimulants represent the vast majority of substances with very few falling outside of this binary; however, there is a category that exists almost completely separately from depressants and stimulants, which is the psychedelics.

What Exactly are Psychedelics?

There are many differences between psychedelics and the depressant and stimulant classes of drugs. By definition, a psychedelic is a type of mind-altering substance that significantly alters the cognition and perceptions of individuals who consume them. To be more specific, psychedelics are a class of drugs that exist within a larger, albeit similar, category called hallucinogens. However, hallucinogens and psychedelics differ because hallucinogens encompass a number of substances with dissociative and delirium-inducing effects while psychedelics mostly cause distortions in perception, particularly visual, auditory, and tactile. In effect, psychedelics change how a person interprets the world around him or her via his or her senses.

Some of the more specific effects of psychedelic drugs include: colors are perceived to be brighter or more vivid, textures and patterns appear to be richer, there may be a keener awareness of one’s body, depth perception is heightened, distorted perceptions of time, hallucinations, heightened sensitivity to changes in the environment, more intense emotions, and abrupt mood shifts, and bouts of intense introspection and reflection.

Despite sharing a number of qualities with many other hallucinogens, the drugs that make up the subgroup of psychedelics each have their own unique effects. What’s unique about psychedelics, especially when compared to depressants and stimulants, is that individuals who take the same strain of the same substance can have very different experiences from those substances. The “intoxication” that comes from psychedelic drugs is highly variable and dependent on a user’s environment, mood, expectations, and level of experience with those substances. For instance, the experience of stress or being in a noisy environment can cause a person to have a bad experience from psychedelic drugs. As well, feelings of doubt, nervousness, or worry can be magnified by psychedelic drugs, contributing to the bad experience that some individuals sometimes have.

psychedelic mushrooms

How Psychedelics Affect the Brain

Before we answer the question of whether or not psychedelics are addictive, it’s important to understand how, exactly, psychedelics work. In other words, we must take a look at the specific effects that psychedelics have in the brain. The majority of psychedelics achieve their effects by altering levels of serotonin in specific areas of the brain, particularly areas in the prefrontal cortex that are involved in perception, mood, and cognition. As well, psychedelic drugs have effects on areas of the brain that are related to arousal regulation as well as responses to panic and stress.

But there are other substances that underlie psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin. These types of substances are responsible for many of the more profound hallucinogenic experiences that users have while under the influence of psychedelics. According to studies that have been conducted on the effects of psychedelics, these elements can cause the brain the draw sensory information from more than one sensory area at a time; for example, people under the influence of psychedelics often report that they can “hear color” and “see sound.” This is likely the result of the brain drawing information from multiple sources.

Are Psychedelics Addictive?

Many individuals have wondered whether psychedelics are addictive. One of the main reasons why this is a little-known fact is because there are far fewer people using hallucinogen and psychedelic drugs than there are people using depressants and stimulants; therefore, this information is less pertinent to people that, for instance, the rates of heroin overdoses or what the symptoms of cocaine overdose are. Historically, psychedelic drugs have been most commonly used for spiritual purposes, either as part of some type of religious practice or as a means of opening a person’s “third eye.”

As you might expect, since the effects of psychedelic drugs are so vastly different from other substances, these drugs don’t work the same way as other drugs. But are they addictive? Well, yes and no. To answer this in greater detail, let’s compare psychedelic drugs to something like heroin.

When a person abuses heroin consistently over a period of time, the brain’s chemistry changes in such a way that the individual becomes physically dependent on the heroin; the brain needs the heroin to maintain even minimum levels of important neurochemicals. By comparison, most of the neurological changes that result from the use of psychedelics aren’t addictive. Of course, the change in serotonin levels can become habit-forming, but the substance itself isn’t actually addictive. Where it becomes problematic is with regard to addictive behavior. If a person would continue to use psychedelics over a prolonged period of time, he or she could get into the habit of using psychedelics frequently, which may result in the individual feeling compulsions to use psychedelics during instances when he or she wasn’t using this type of drug. Although this isn’t the same type of addiction as with heroin and numerous other drugs, this does represent a level of dependence.

As with any substance, the continued use of psychedelics over time will lead to a tolerance. In other words, a person who uses psychedelic drugs frequently will need more and more of these drugs over time to achieve the desired effects. Moreover, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that repeated use of psychedelics can result in a type of withdrawal in which the individual may experience headaches, obsessive thoughts of psychedelic drug use, mood swings, and sweating, which correspond with addiction and chemical dependence.

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