The Psychedelic Afterglow: What It Feels Like and Its Therapeutic Potential
Unlike many other substances, psychedelics can create a lingering feeling of well-being, long after the altered state of consciousness has subsided. This is known as an ‘afterglow’.
Drugs like cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and (for many) MDMA are associated with ‘comedowns’. When the high fades after the use of these drugs, you may be left with feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, and fatigue. Likewise, the fun of drinking is followed by a hangover, sometimes quite a nasty one. But it’s common after using psychedelics to feel better — a lot better — than you did prior to your trip.
This isn’t to say that an afterglow is always present following a psychedelic experience. And sometimes, even if the trip is positive, there can be a ‘psychedelic comedown’ of sorts, where you feel drained, fatigued, and perhaps quite low. This is more common with intense experiences and when tripping continues late into the night and early morning (when you would normally be sleeping). Some users may experience a period of depression after their trip; again, even if it was a beautiful and enlightening experience.
However, the psychedelic afterglow is common enough for it to be considered a distinct effect of psychedelics. But what does it feel like exactly? How long does it last? Can you do anything to maintain it? And what do psychedelic researchers have to say about it? This post will explore all of these questions about this much-loved and therapeutically vital aspect of psychedelic use.
What Does the Psychedelic Afterglow Feel Like?
In the hours, days, and weeks following the end of a psychedelic session, you may find yourself experiencing a heightened sense of well-being. This can be characterised by mood enhancement and joviality, feeling carefree, a sense of calm and peacefulness, feelings of gratitude and joy, being more connected to oneself and others, heightened confidence, greater authenticity, and the wish to be kinder to oneself and others.
The psychedelic afterglow, in other words, involves a range of enhanced positive emotions. But there can be sensory or perspective changes as well, which are also deemed positive. Post-trip, you may experience heightened senses of taste, smell, sight, and hearing. Food can taste better. You can notice and appreciate smells more, such as floral fragrances.
If the world appeared drab and uninteresting before, it may now appear rich, vivid, colourful, fascinating, and full of possibilities. Nature, in particular, may look particularly animated, alive, and beautiful. The psychedelic afterglow can, for some, involve enhanced animism, where natural objects — trees, in particular — possess a distinct character, as if they have their own personality and moods.
Another benefit of the psychedelic afterglow is enhanced music appreciation. While you may have certainly enjoyed music before your trip and had it as a regular and beneficial aspect of your life, listening to music during an afterglow period can feel noticeably different. Music can affect you more deeply; you may feel more fully involved when listening to it and experience more pleasure, euphoria, and joy than you normally would.
These lingering perceptual, emotional, and perspective changes don’t impair or incapacitate you in any way. Even if the psychedelic afterglow is pronounced and persistent, rather than minimal and intermittent, you can still function as you normally would — whether it be at work or in your interactions and relationships with others. In fact, all of your everyday activities may feel enhanced since the psychedelic afterglow is, for many, characterised by an increase in mindfulness. In the days and weeks following a trip, you may find it easier to focus on the immediacy of your experiences, rather than getting caught up in old habits of thought.
The psychedelic afterglow can feel like you’re ‘high’ in a sense, but really, you are experiencing a functional elevation in mood and outlook. Natural beauty and the rawness of your inner and outer worlds are accentuated. There is a magnification of aesthetic perception and a prevailing sense that this is how you’re meant to feel and be in the world.
While psychedelic afterglows tend to follow joyful (or mostly positive) trips, you can also experience them after negative or challenging experiences. After a challenging experience, or a trip in which there were difficult moments, you may feel a strong sense of gratitude about being back in sober reality.
How Long Does the Afterglow Period Last?
The duration of a psychedelic afterglow will vary from person to person. For some, it may last only for the day after the trip; for others, it can last several days, a week, a couple of weeks, several weeks, or even months.
But if a psychedelic experience improves your mental health, what is the difference between the psychedelic afterglow and the alleviation of depression, anxiety, and other forms of negative rumination? One way to think of the difference between the two is that the former involves increases in positive experiences, whereas the latter involves decreases in negative experiences. One is additive while the other is alleviatory.
Nonetheless, for many people, the alleviation of, say, depression (without psychedelic use) is also accompanied by positive emotions like pleasure, joy, appreciation, gratitude, and compassion. Distinguishing between the psychedelic afterglow and mental health benefits can, therefore, be quite tricky (and often subjective).
Many people, nevertheless, may feel they notice a difference between the psychedelic afterglow and their general mental health. The afterglow may be felt as a ‘functional boost’ and even when this fades, there can still be a marked improvement in mental health. Joyfulness may not be as strong or persistent, but the depression has, nevertheless, been ameliorated.
There are certain steps you can take that may help to prolong the afterglow period, or at least reanimate positive feelings that have faded. You can try listening to music you listened to during your trip, maintaining a regular practice of meditation, journalling about your experience, discussing your trip with others (and hearing about others’ experiences), attending psychotherapy for integration, and focusing on the aesthetic dimension of life (such as being in nature and appreciating art). All of these activities are intended to shift your emotional state, perspective, and attitudes towards those that you felt during the afterglow.
Research on the Psychedelic Afterglow
The psychedelic afterglow is under-researched. But what we do know about it is illuminating. For example, a 2020 study conducted by Matthias Forstmann and colleagues from Yale University found that the social connectedness and mood enhancements related to the afterglow period were most pronounced in those participants who had journeyed within the last 24 hours, compared to those who tripped within the past seven days. The afterglow effects were seen to slowly diminish over time.
The researchers also found that there was a statistically significant causal relationship between self-reported transformative experiences and persisting enhancement of positive mood. ‘Transformative experiences’ are those that are so profound that they cause people to radically change, including in terms of their moral values. In other words, a subjectively positive trip will likely produce more intense afterglow effects.
A 2015 systematic review carried out by Tomislac Majić and his colleagues used Walter Pahnke’s description of the psychedelic afterglow from 1969: “[an] elevated and energetic mood with a relative freedom from concerns of the past and from guilt and anxiety.” Pahnke also noted that a willingness “to enter into close interpersonal relationships is enhanced”.
Majić et al. draw attention to the work of B. J. Albaugh and P. O. Anderson in 1974 and state, “During the afterglow period, the effectiveness of psycho-therapeutic interventions is reported to be enhanced until the afterglow gradually subsides after a period of between two weeks and a month”. The authors also observe that the ritual use of ayahuasca by members of União do Vegetal (UDV) is separated by intervals of two weeks, which is often the reported duration of the afterglow phenomenon.
In addition, Majić et al. refer to the work of Roland Griffiths and other colleagues from 2006, which found that the positive behavioural changes elicited by psychedelic use greatly outlast the afterglow effects.
The amplified sensory and emotional activity seen as central to the afterglow period is likely caused by psychedelics’ ability to increase both neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons) and neuroplasticity (the growth in the number of connections between neurons). These are also known as psychoplastogenic effects.
In his latest book, The Psychedelic Handbook (2022), DMT research pioneer Rick Strassman writes that “these [psychoplastogenic] effects continue over time — a couple of weeks to a month — and may correspond in humans to the afterglow or “critical period” during which milder but real benefit continues to accrue after one’s drug session. Remember, too, that this critical period is one in which the effects of psychotherapy may be especially powerful”.
To experience long-lasting benefits from psychedelics, then, you really want to make the most of the afterglow period. Many individuals find themselves enjoying a short period of afterglow, only to find, dishearteningly, that it goes away, with negative patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaviour returning. But by focusing on new and healthier activities and habits during the afterglow or ‘critical’ period, including sessions with a trusted and empathetic psychotherapist, you will increase your chances of experiencing long-term well-being, even when the afterglow inevitably fades away.