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

The experience of coming down off a drug happens because the drug is being eliminated from the body. This not only results in the high wearing off, but often causes a reaction based on acute withdrawal – the body’s response to no longer having the drug in the system. This usually results in a crash or intense withdrawal symptoms that are often the opposite of the feelings the drug induces.

Cocaine (including crack) and ecstasy (also known as MDMA, E, or X) are two types of drugs with distressing crash symptoms. However, it can be difficult to determine which comedown is harder to handle, because the drugs produce different effects, and therefore result in somewhat different comedown symptoms. 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 speeds up the action of the central nervous system. This means that responses are accelerated and the person feels extremely alert, awake, and focused.

One of the chemical pathways in the brain that is affected by cocaine is the dopamine pathway. This neurochemical process is responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward; cocaine prevents dopamine from being removed from the synaptic space, which results in an accumulation of this neurotransmitter. This accumulated dopamine is what causes intense euphoria. This also accounts for the increased energy and focus that characterizes the cocaine high. Cocaine also inhibits the elimination of serotonin and norepinephrine, increasing their action as well, and leading to increased confidence and energy.

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 rapidly.

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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 effects 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 action of dopamine.
  • Norepinephrine: This is normally released as a response to stressful situations, helping to increase the fight-or-flight response. The increased action accounts for increased focus and energy, and it also increases respiration and heart rate.
  • Serotonin: This affects an individual’s mood, sleep patterns, appetite, and more. Releasing large amounts of serotonin reduces the need to sleep, improves mood, and fosters a sense of emotional closeness and empathy.

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 include:

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

Another aspect of coming down from cocaine is often a powerful craving for more of the drug. These strong cravings, combined with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, can perpetuate a compulsive cycle of cocaine abuse in which the person cannot quit or control their use.

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 outlines 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 severe, 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 weeks beyond stopping use. This is called protracted withdrawal or post-acute withdrawal syndrome.

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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 comedown 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. 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 use of these drugs, which can result in addiction or life-threatening consequences, such as overdose.

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.