Ecstasy/MDMA Addiction and Abuse

MDMA, which stands for 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, is a synthetic drug that is popularly known as “ecstasy.” The drug produces psychoactive effects, meaning it influences perception, and works as a hybrid between a stimulant and hallucinogen. People who take the drug experience an increase in energy and heightened emotional sensitivity, and the neurotransmitter serotonin is released in the brain, which causes a short-term, elevated mood. The drug can also serve as an antidepressant for a very short amount of time.

This is a main reason that people become dependent on ecstasy/MDMA and begin misusing the drug. When people experience the feelings of happiness and heightened emotional sensitivity, they associate the drug psychologically to positive experiences. As people take the drug more often, a physical dependence forms. The brain relies on MDMA’s presence to know when to release serotonin. When the drug is not present, the brain might not release this important chemical and people may experience long stretches of depression or negative thoughts. As people continue to take ecstasy, this connection to happiness becomes stronger and more difficult to break.

  • In 2016, more than 18 million Americans 12 years and older reported abusing Ecstasy at least once in their lifetimes, more than 2.4 million in the past year and 619,000 in the past month.
  • In 2018, 1.6% of 8th graders, 2.4% of high school sophomores and 4.1% of high school seniors said that they tried Ecstasy.
Ecstasy was originally developed using the chemical methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) and is commonly used as a party drug. Other street names for Ecstasy include “X,” “XTC,” “Molly” and “love drug.” It was used by the United States Army in psychological warfare tests and then resurfaced in the 1970s as a psychotherapy medication to lower inhibitions. By the1980s, MDMA was more well-known as a party drug.

Ecstasy generally comes in tablets of various shapes and colors, often with recognizable designs stamped on them (hearts, stars, butterflies, clover leaves, etc.). The substance is mainly ingested by swallowing the tablet, but may sometimes be snorted, smoked or injected intravenously. The average dosage of MDMA in one tablet can vary from 50-150 mg, so the effects of taking Ecstasy can vary considerably.

Ecstasy can be cut with, or diluted with, other stimulants, like methamphetamine, amphetamine, ephedrine and caffeine. It can also be cut with different hallucinogens, including PCP, LSD, nexus and ketamine. Because MDMA is an unregulated, illicit drug, manufacturers can add anything to the substance like caffeine, dextromethorphan, amphetamines, PCP or cocaine so its purity is always questionable.

MDMA can be in tablet or powder form, and that physical difference is how to differentiate ecstasy and “Molly.” Ecstasy is the tablet and is usually in different colors. Molly, which produces similar effects, is the powder version of MDMA. Additionally, “Molly” can be altered much easier than ecstasy.

MDMA increases the activity of three brain chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Dopamine creates a euphoric feeling and increased energy. Norepinephrine increases a person’s heart rate and blood pressure. Serotonin increases emotional closeness and elevates a person’s mood, which often leads to lack of sleep or appetite and a higher sex drive. Once MDMA is taken, it takes around 15 minutes to travel through the bloodstream and reach the brain. The effects then last between three and six hours.

MDMA increases the activity of three brain chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Dopamine creates a euphoric feeling and increased energy. Norepinephrine increases a person’s heart rate and blood pressure. Serotonin increases emotional closeness and elevates a person’s mood, which often leads to lack of sleep or appetite and a higher sex drive. Once MDMA is taken, it takes around 15 minutes to travel through the bloodstream and reach the brain. The effects then last between three and six hours.

Since ecstasy/MDMA is illegal, the drug has many street names to mask its unlawful sale and purchase. Knowing the street names could help identify if a loved one is misusing ecstasy/MDMA. Some of the most common street names people might hear or read on the Internet include:

    • Adam
    • Beans
    • Cadillac
    • California Sunrise
    • Clarity
    • Essence
    • Eve
    • Hug Drug
    • Love Drug
    • Lover’s Speed
    • Peace
    • Snowball
    • Uppers

It’s easy to see how this substance could be addictive. MDMA causes the brain to produce an overload of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals are all known to create feelings of happiness and pleasure and reduce depression and anxiety. Once the substance is in the body, the brain compensates by producing less of these agents. People often experience depression, anxiety, confusion, sleep problems and cravings for Ecstasy after coming down, even after the first time trying it.

For some people, Ecstasy may lead to psychological dependence. Psychological dependence requires frequent cravings with the substance and unease when it’s not available. Physical dependence can also occur with repeated use over time as the body adjusts to having the substance continually in the bloodstream.

Knowing some of the signs and symptoms of ecstasy addiction is an important step to recognizing if someone suffers from the substance use disorder. It’s possible that some of these effects may be due to the combined use of MDMA with other drugs, notably marijuana or alcohol. Combining drugs with ecstasy/MDMA is not limited to those two substances, though. Since MDMA increases trust and closeness for people, many pair it with sildenafil (Viagra) for an increased sex drive and unique sexual experiences. If someone suddenly starts taking Viagra, either with or without a prescription, this is a potential sign of ecstasy misuse, especially if they have reported becoming more sexually active and with numerous partners.

There are some commonly associated behavioral changes for people when they begin misusing ecstasy/MDMA. Noticing these can help identify when recreational use of the drug becomes an addiction and something that should be addressed.

One of the most notable is that people who consistently misuse ecstasy often begin going to new hangout locations and enter a new social group. This is a major sign of any drug misuse and addiction, not just MDMA. Other notable behavioral changes to look for include:

  • Hostile mood
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Uncooperative attitude
  • Worsening performance at school or work

People who have reported withdrawal effects from MDMA/ecstasy said they experienced all or most of the following:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Impulsiveness and aggression
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Memory loss
  • Problems concentrating
  • Lack of appetite
  • Decreased pleasure from sex

Some of the psychological effects that could happen from ecstasy addiction include depression and anxiety. These mental health disorders form because people grow reliant on ecstasy to produce positive feelings and happiness. Whenever the drug leaves their system, the body does not produce enough serotonin and instead is overwhelmed with negative thoughts and emotions.

There are many risks that people take when misusing ecstasy/MDMA. Most come from a possible psychological and physical dependence on the drug and how that can affect their mood and relationships. However, there are short-term dangers associated to any drug misuse, and ecstasy is no exception.

High doses of MDMA can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature. When this happens, people can experience a dangerous spike in temperature that often results in liver, kidney or heart failure, which can lead to death.

MDMA was first introduced to the medical world in the 1970s as an aid in psychotherapy. The drug treated for mental illness by helping patients feel comfortable talking to therapists and working through anxiety or depression. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not approve the drug and in 1985 the Drug Enforcement Administration labeled MDMA as an illegal drug with no recognized medicinal use.

However, ecstasy/MDMA has not gone away. Despite being illegal, the drug is popular with young adults and teenagers. According to the NIDA, around 1.5 percent of eighth-graders have taken ecstasy/MDMA at least once. Around 2.8 percent of tenth-graders have taken the drug, and nearly 5 percent of high school seniors have misused it at least once. Around 11.6 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 reportedly took the drug at least once in their life. The drug is commonly associated with nightclubs and all-night dance parties, which are also called “raves.”

Some scientists and researchers remain interested in the drug’s potential as a psychotherapy treatment tool, but only when given to patients in extremely controlled conditions. The NIDA also states that MDMA is currently in trials as a possible treatment option for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety in terminally ill patients, and as treatment for social anxiety in autistic adults.

Ecstasy/MDMA treatment is available throughout the country. The largest obstacles are recognizing if treatment is necessary and locating the appropriate rehabilitation program to fit a person’s needs.

Since ecstasy/MDMA is a psychoactive drug and has such a big impact on a person’s emotions, co-occurring disorders could result from misuse. Ecstasy promotes a euphoric high and feelings of closeness for people, in part due to the serotonin released, and the lack of ecstasy could create depression or anxiety disorders as people learn to cope with finding happiness without the drug.

Finding a rehab program that also treats for these co-occurring mental health disorders is extremely important to a successful recovery from any drug addiction. The Recovery Village is one such treatment option and has  experienced medical staff with extensive knowledge of the mental health issues plaguing the United States.

Have you or a loved one misused  ecstasy/MDMA? Have you experienced any of the associated withdrawal symptoms once the drug leaves your system? If so, know that you are not in this struggle alone. Many people have sought ecstasy/MDMA treatment and learned of ways to cope with their substance use disorder. The Recovery Village’s team of doctors and nurses can provide a safe and supportive setting for your or your loved one’s rehabilitation from drug addiction. Call today and begin on the path toward a healthier life.

  • Is Ecstasy addicting?

    Though ecstasy isn’t considered addictive per se, it may be attractive to teens and young adults. Clubs, parties, concerts, college campuses and other such social venues for this age group have become a hotbed for MDMA recreational use.

  • How prevalent is ecstasy/MDMA use?

    Overall, this drug’s use is rather uncommon, as research shows that just 2% of the U.S. population, aged 12 and above, has used a hallucinogenic drug like MDMA within the past year. Despite the relatively low overall prevalence, teens and college students may be drawn to ecstasy, especially with its recent resurgence as “Molly.” In fact, the prevalence of past-year use of hallucinogenic drugs such as this one is 6.9% among those aged 18-25.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.