Coming down off a high from drug use is usually not a comfortable thing; however, some crashes are more uncomfortable than others. This can be based on a number of factors, including how long the person has been using the substance, what the drug does in the body, how fast-acting the drug is, and whether or not the person is able to taper away from the drug.

The experience of coming down off a drug happens because the drug is leaving the body. This not only results in the effect of the high stopping, but often causes a reaction based on withdrawal – the body’s response to no longer having the drug available for the chemical pathways it has stimulated. This usually results in crash or withdrawal symptoms that are the opposite of the feelings the drug enhances.

Cocaine (including crack) and ecstasy (also known as MDMA, E, or X) are two types of drugs with uncomfortable crash symptoms. However, it can be difficult to determine which comedown is harder to handle, because the drugs have different actions in the body, and therefore result in somewhat different comedown symptoms and responses. The following paragraphs represent a comparison of what the crash is like for cocaine and ecstasy.

Drug Action in the Body

Cocaine
Cocaine is a stimulant drug, which works in the nervous system to speed up the action of neurochemicals. This means that responses are accelerated and the person feels extremely alert, awake, and focused.

The chemical pathway in the brain that is affected by cocaine is the dopamine pathway. This neurochemical process is responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward; cocaine stimulates increased production of dopamine in this system, which provides a feeling of euphoria and increases neural stimulation. This also accounts for the increased energy and sense of intense focus that characterizes the cocaine high. Cocaine also affects serotonin and norepinephrine, increasing feelings of trust, emotional connection, energy, and heightened awareness.

A report from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration shows that cocaine’s high is quick; it is absorbed and acts on the brain almost immediately. Its half-life is only about an hour or less, meaning that it leaves the body very quickly as well. For this reason, the crash from cocaine comes on fast.

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Ecstasy

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, taking ecstasy can result in a high similar to the stimulant high; however, along with the stimulant action, ecstasy serves as a hallucinogen and psychedelic, altering mood and sensory perception, as well as perception of time. Ecstasy has a slow action, reaching peak concentration in the bloodstream in about two hours.

Ecstasy’s affects arise through at least three different chemical pathways in the brain:

  • Dopamine: As with cocaine, this pathway accounts for the pleasurable high that is experienced when taking the drug, as ecstasy increases the production of dopamine.
  • Norepinephrine: This stimulant hormone in the body is normally released as a response to stressful situations, helping to increase the fight-or-flight response. This accounts for increased focus and energy, and it also increases respiration and heart rate.
  • Serotonin: This affects an individual’s mood, sleep patterns, and appetite. Disruption of this pathway reduces the need to sleep, improves mood, and fosters a sense of emotional closeness.

The medical journal CMAJ describes the half-life of ecstasy as being about eight hours, which means it can take up to two days for the drug to clear from the body. It may take more or less time for specific individuals based on their particular circumstances.

Crash Symptoms

Cocaine

According to the National Institutes of Health’s Medline Plus encyclopedia, the symptoms of a cocaine crash – sometimes referred to as being “strung out” – include:

  • Fatigue, sleepiness, or excessive sleeping
  • Anhedonia, or lack of ability to feel pleasure
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Mood swings
  • Occasionally, bowel discomfort

Another aspect of coming down from cocaine is often a powerful craving for more of the drug. This is the body’s response to the fact that, as the drug leaves the system, the chemicals released in the body that create intense feelings of pleasure drop. When this reward mechanism drops, the person feels strong cravings to stimulate it again. This is part of what makes cocaine so addictive.

The higher, quicker intensity of the cocaine high can lead to comedown symptoms feeling more severe than those for a longer-acting drug like ecstasy.

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Ecstasy Mental Health Daily explains the symptoms of an ecstasy crash, some of which are similar to cocaine, because of the stimulant action in the body. These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Paranoia
  • Fatigue or sleepiness
  • Bowel discomfort
  • Cravings for more of the drug

Other symptoms of the crash, related to ecstasy’s hallucinogenic activity, include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Muscle rigidity
  • Depersonalization: a feeling of being unreal or not being oneself

Crash Duration

Cocaine

As mentioned above, because cocaine is a fast-acting drug, it generally only takes about a day for the most intense symptoms to fade. However, some of the symptoms may not be noticeable until a week or more after coming down. Mood swings can become a greater problem as much as two weeks after taking the drug, especially for heavier users.

Particularly for people who use cocaine regularly, the comedown may last longer and be more severe than for those who are first-time users or who use it rarely. This is because the more frequently a person uses the drug, the less effect it has, making the person feel the need to take higher doses or use it more frequently in order to get the same level of high. This not only makes the symptoms of comedown more intense, but can also extend the amount of time it takes to get over the symptoms.

Even once the drug is cleared from the body, especially for people who have been using heavily for a long time, withdrawal symptoms can last for months beyond stopping use. The intense crash may be immediate, but the body’s response to the drug can simmer under the surface for a much longer period of time.

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Ecstasy

The ecstasy crash is longer than the cocaine crash, because of ecstasy’s longer half-life and slower action. It takes a few days for the drug to leave the body, so the experience of the crash may be less intense, but it lasts longer.

The Mental Health Daily site also explains that the length of time for the ecstasy crash varies depending on the individual, the amount of the drug taken, as well as how long and how often the person has been using the drug. Full withdrawal can last as long as 90 days and, as with cocaine, symptoms can continue or even surface many months after drug use has stopped. As with cocaine – or with any other drug – the longer and more heavily the drug has been used, the more intense and longer the crash and withdrawal periods are likely to be.

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Avoiding the Crash

Crashing from cocaine or ecstasy is not likely to result in death, even if severe symptoms sometimes make it feel that way. However, especially with long-term use of these drugs, the comedown can become more and more uncomfortable, and the cravings experienced during withdrawal can encourage continued and increasing use of these drugs, which can be life-threatening.

Because of this, a person who is struggling with use of either of these drugs can get help through research-based treatment where the individual can learn to manage cravings and begin the path to recovery, resulting in the potential to escape the cycle of drug use, gain control over substance abuse, and look forward to a more positive life of abstinence from cocaine or ecstasy.