Ecstasy Withdrawal Symptoms
Ecstasy is the street name for the drug 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). In the past 20 years, it has become ever more prominent in the United States as a party drug often associated with dance clubs, music festivals, and raves. It has many pseudonyms – X, E, Molly, Mandy, and Scooby Snacks to name a few – and is known for giving a euphoric, energetic high that lowers inhibitions, increases tactile sensitivity, and gives users a strong sense of affection and wellbeing.
It is marketed as the ultimate party drug, but what many individuals discover to their cost is that ecstasy abuse has the potential to do lasting physical harm. With negative effects that include cardiac arrest, severe dehydration, and heat exhaustion, choosing to use ecstasy is always a risk.
Additionally, the psychoactive effects of MDMA make it potentially addictive. Ecstasy withdrawal symptoms are sometimes not as easy to spot as the famous “shakes” of alcohol abuse or “coke bugs” of cocaine abuse, but a person experiencing them is almost certainly in crisis, so it is important to be able to identify the signs of ecstasy withdrawal in yourself or those around you so that appropriate medical treatment can be sought.
MDMA and Ecstasy- Is there a Difference?
The distinction between MDMA and Ecstasy has become less important recently but essentially MDMA is the “pure” form of the drug and ecstasy contains other additives. MDMA was first synthesized in 1910 in a study of stimulant and hallucinogenic drugs. It did not garner popular use until the 1970’s when it saw use as a therapeutic drug for mood disorders.
This was when MDMA was first mixed with other drugs such as cocaine, ephedrine, and other stimulants. The name “ecstasy” actually comes from a brand name of one of the original therapeutic drugs. The name stuck around as well as the style. With illicit manufactures emulating the process of mixing MDMA with other things. After abuse of the drug became more popular in parties and clubs, MDMA and ecstasy were banned in the US in 1985.
Today both drugs can be found in pill form or as a white powder and are ingested or snorted. They are often referred to interchangeably and at the very least are indistinguishable from each other visually. The general public who use these drugs know that MDMA is supposed to signify the pure form of the drug, and drug dealers will use this to their advantage, marketing one pill or powder over another as “pure molly”.
The truth is designer drugs are unregulated and are rarely pure. They are now almost always a cocktail of several drugs. This is the major source of the risk associated with MDMA and ecstasy because a user never really knows what they’re taking. They could be sold “MDMA” but actually be taking ecstasy that has been cut with methamphetamine. This leaves them open to numerous physical side effects and death by overdose.
For the rest of this article, we will use the term “ecstasy” since it is more accurate to refer to the designer drug when speaking generally about the effects a person is likely to experience as it is almost certainly the one they will be taking.
How Ecstasy Works
When a person takes ecstasy, it interacts with the reward pathways of their brain. It boosts the production of three key neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. The neurotransmitters operate in the body to relay messages related to stimuli you experience throughout the day internally and externally as well as regulating things like reflexes, emotions, and memory.
The ecstasy high especially affects serotonin, the neurotransmitter commonly associated with mood, appetite, and pain. The massive boost of serotonin gives an ecstasy user the characteristic affection, increased sex drive, and empathy. Dopamine produces the euphoria associated with ecstasy, the overall pleasurable sensation and the increase in positive stimulus from touch. Norepinephrine in an ecstasy high is what causes the spike of energy, the stimulant effects that are similar to cocaine and methamphetamine.
Ecstasy boosts all of these neurotransmitters to exceedingly high levels. So much so, that after the drug is metabolized, the body overcompensates and, through its normal process of reabsorbing the neurotransmitter chemicals, destroys more than it normally would. This leaves the user feeling drained, exhausted, and hungover.
Two things happen after a person takes ecstasy: dopamine and serotonin are destroyed and the brain guards itself against a future imbalance of neurotransmitter chemicals by dampening its receptors. This means the next time the user takes ecstasy they will need more of the drug to achieve the same high. This need to increase the dose of a drug is called tolerance. Tolerance increases each time ecstasy is taken, and if used habitually, the constant increase in dose and flood of serotonin and dopamine will eventually lead to the brain essentially stopping all production of these neurotransmitters.
At this late stage, the user will need ecstasy just to feel normal – let alone feel good. If a person reaches this point they are described as having a physical dependence on the drug. Tolerance and dependence are linked: together they lead to addiction.
There is some debate in the medical world about exactly how addictive ecstasy is. Tolerance and dependence on ecstasy do not develop quite so quickly or intensely as cocaine or heroin. While the discussion about how addictive ecstasy is ongoing, there is no professional debate about if ecstasy is addictive.
It very much is, but there is a common misconception that ecstasy is a sort of “risk free” drug. These can lead unsuspecting ravers or music festival-goers down a path that ultimately leads to an ecstasy addiction. As with many types of addiction, there are key questions to ask of a person, which will identify the signs of their ecstasy abuse and addiction:
- Do they feel they need the drug to be social?
- Do they feel depressed or anxious when they don’t have ecstasy?
- Are they preoccupied with their next dose and where they’re going to get it?
- Are they continually upping their dose to get the same effect?
- Have they tried to quit but been unable to?
A person who answers yes to one or multiple of these questions will probably be in some stage of ecstasy addiction. A problem with ecstasy can be insidious and sneak up on an otherwise well-adjusted person. It can also exacerbate pre-existing mental conditions. Pre-existing mood disorders, for example, can make a person twice as likely to develop an addiction.
At the same time, there is a causal link between people with drug addiction developing a mental disorder as a result. In the case of ecstasy, a side effect of prolonged habitual use is a development of chronic depression. To discover if a person is in fact addicted to ecstasy, aside from knowing their mental health and risk history, observing them go through a withdrawal is a sure sign that they have a problem.
Ecstasy Withdrawal Effects
Ecstasy withdrawal is notable for being a mental ordeal more so than a physical one. However, physical side effects can be present to varying degrees, especially if an addict’s supply is often cut with physically impactful drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine (which as we now know it often is).
Additionally, ecstasy dependent individuals rarely use the drug on its own, often combining it with LSD, marijuana, alcohol, or other stimulants. This means no two withdrawal patients will experience the same physical side effects. That being said, the psychological withdrawal symptoms are well documented and quantifiable as they connect to ecstasy. The most common ecstasy withdrawal signs and symptoms include:
- Deep Depression
- Lack of focus
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of memory
- Loss of self-esteem
The ecstasy detox process usually takes an average of 90 days (3 months). Since the physical effects are mild, it can be helpful to trace which mental symptoms appear at which point in the withdrawal period.
Pre-Withdrawal (The “come down” 3-6 hrs)
While the high ecstasy wears off, the user will start to experience withdrawal-like symptoms. They may have out of body experiences, panic attacks, or slide into a depression. Insomnia is a hallmark of this stage as well. As your brain attempts to restore chemical balance, regular functions become chaotic and disordered.
Stage 1 (1- 3 Days)
During this time, the brain will work to clear ecstasy from the body’s systems. Depression will often deepen at this stage and anxiety can become acute. As serotonin levels are depleted, mood swings and irritability are very common as well as a lack of appetite – a lack of appetite is also associated with depression, so they may be hit from multiple angles. The lack of norepinephrine will also induce feelings of weakness and fatigue. The brain will be very taxed at this stage, making concentration and cognitive functions (like memory) difficult or in extreme cases impossible.
Stage 2 (Up to 10 days)
This is when the ecstasy has been fully expelled and the brain attempts to return to normal functioning. Some or all the previous symptoms will reach their highest threshold at this stage. Additionally, in rare cases, the addict will suffer muscle cramping and rigidity as well as experience visual and auditory hallucinations.
Stage 3 (11-90 days)
This is the time it will take for a person to get back to neutral. Exactly how long the third stage lasts depends on multiple factors: the person’s overall health, the other types of drugs they used, their mental health, how much and how often they used ecstasy, the list goes on. At this stage, cravings, which have been present throughout withdrawal, continue but other symptoms such as insomnia, concentration, and memory loss begin to pass. Depression is the most likely symptom to remain even after the withdrawal period is over, but there are no hard and fast rules to how a person’s brain chemistry will recover.
One major safety concern during an ecstasy withdrawal is the threat of relapse. Now the threat of relapse is a concern at all times for an addict, but it is especially crucial during the withdrawal period to be mindful of the effect a relapse could have. During this time, tolerance for ecstasy falls as the brain recovers some normal functioning.
If cravings become too strong or outside stressors trigger a relapse, as they very often do, an addict might return to the drug at the dose they took before they stopped. Their body will not be ready for a large dose to the lowered tolerance and will be in very serious danger of an Ecstasy overdose which itself can lead to death. This is why anyone looking to get clean should seriously consider professional help.
Once a person has made the decision to get clean, there are multiple ecstasy treatment options to help. Inpatient treatment centers, what a lot of people call “detox clinics”, offer a safe, supportive space to overcome withdrawals and provides professional care during that difficult time. Aside from finding an inpatient treatment center, a recovering addict should surround themselves with supportive, caring, empathetic people whether that’s family, coworkers, or close friends.
Along with ecstasy addiction treatment and support, and this may seem obvious, but getting clean means more than simply not doing drugs, it means cleansing the body and mind. Eat healthy food. Drink plenty of water. Try meditating or yoga. Exercise daily and allow the body a new start. Dealing with the disease of addiction can be lonely whatever avenue they chose, so it is important to stress an addict doesn’t have to go through it alone.
At Luminance Recovery, our rehab Orange County center offers a safe and healing environment for addicts recovering from an addiction. If you or a loved one is looking to overcome an ecstasy addiction, contact us today.
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