After a Spiked Drink: Dealing With Acid-Induced Flashbacks

Reader’s Question

I’m 21 years old, and the girl I’ve been dating is 22. She was given a drink at a party last Halloween that apparently was spiked with 9 hits of “acid.” At least that’s what the toxicology report indicates. She now unfortunately suffers from “flashbacks” on a regular basis. She also has to take Zoloft, Klonopin, and Xanax for agoraphobia. I was wondering if there is any specific medication or counseling technique available for these flashbacks to stop! It is really affecting her daily life, and I am really concerned.

Psychologist’s Reply

Post-substance intoxication “flashbacks” and associated anxiety are not uncommon. This is especially true when the substances include hallucinogens such as LSD (often referred to as “acid”). While some regular drug abusers not only seem to “tolerate” but sometimes even “enjoy” their flashbacks, it can be a very different and frightening circumstance for others, especially those who never intended to have a mind-altering experience in the first place.

Although there have been rare reports of “flashbacks” persisting for a long time, they generally tend to dissipate in both intensity and frequency. The problem for many is that the occurrence of the flashback can produce extreme anxiety, and the anxiety itself can produce many unusual and frightening symptoms. This vicious cycle can intensify to a state of true panic and create a dread of being in situations in which the symptoms might re-appear.

Although there is no specific medicine that can reliably prevent “flashbacks” from occurring, there are both medical and non-medical ways to break the vicious cycle between the symptoms and resulting anxiety. It’s important to become familiar with the non-medical means of handling the symptoms, because although they might be necessary now, not only do medications usually not represent the long-term solution, but also some medications, especially the anxiolytics (like Xanax) have the potential to become habit forming.

So, seek out an experienced therapist with training in both substance use/abuse issues as well as the cognitive, behavioral, or cognitive-behavioral treatment of anxiety. Flashbacks might persist for awhile, but a person can learn to tolerate them better until the time they fade sufficiently in frequency and intensity or disappear altogether. Once the vicious cycle of panic is broken, however, the quality of life can begin to improve immediately. One cognitive “tool” that can really help a person in the throes of a flashback-induced panic is to replace the typical insecure thoughts that the person is losing their mind or will be permanently handicapped with the secure thoughts that the situation is temporary and that despite the momentary feeling of helplessness, they will emerge healthier and stronger. This is a tool your girlfriend can begin to use even before seeing a counselor.

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