While MDMA is currently on the fast track to legalization, only a handful of years ago, few would have imagined that such a thing could be possible.
For decades, media coverage suggested the non-classical psychedelic drug (most commonly known by the street names ecstasy or molly) was the cause of an epidemic of brain damage and seizures amongst young ravers, which created both fear and stigma.
As research on MDMA began opening up in the 2010s, more and more clinical trials and studies have made it clear that the compound may offer exciting potential benefits for mental health. Some evidence suggests that MDMA’s supposed neurotoxicity in humans may be overblown. In fact, recent neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that MDMA does not appear to cause long-term damage to the serotonin system. Today the growing consensus is that safe, regulated, legal MDMA will reduce harm and may be a valid treatment for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).(1)
As psychotherapist Charley Wininger explained in Listening to Ecstasy: The Transformative Power of MDMA, “MDMA is a gateway drug. It swings open the gate to tactile, emotional, and spiritual exploration and opens the door to the heart.”
Dr. Wininger discusses how MDMA could be the key to a healthy relationship in this article on how the “love drug” just may save your relationship. In his article, Dr. Wininger speaks with a married couple who have been exploring the use of MDMA in conjunction with couples therapy to take back control of their relationship. Their experience and his findings showcase just how MDMA earned its title as the “love drug.”
The History of MDMA
The pharmaceutical company Merck first synthesized MDMA in 1912. In the late 1970s, Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) became known in psychotherapeutic circles. Claudio Naranjo, a Chilean psychiatrist, became one of the most notable MDMA therapists in the United States. Around 1980, Ann Shulgin, the wife of chemist Alexander Shulgin (known as the “Godfather of ecstasy”), began to provide MDMA to patients during therapy. The earliest research into MDMA focused on the ways it could be used to enhance psychotherapy. It showed, and continues to show, promise for the treatment of PTSD, as a tool in couples therapy, and may even have some potential as a treatment for traumatic brain injuries.(2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
In 1985 MDMA was criminalized, which forced experimentation and use underground. Around this time, and through the 1990s and early 2000s, it was primarily associated with the rave culture, which adopted the drug due to its capacity to enhance music appreciation and increase feelings of stimulation, intimacy, and euphoria. However, this medicine has now transcended the club scene and entered the realm of mental health treatments once again.
The MDMA Experience
MDMA is an entactogen/empathogen, meaning it increases feelings of empathy, compassion, affection, intimacy, and emotional openness. MDMA is often considered a non-classic psychedelic because it doesn’t produce many typical psychedelic effects, such as profound perceptual changes or mystical experiences. However, it can create dramatic shifts in emotional and thought patterns. As Allison A. Feduccia and Michael C. Mithoefer stated in a paper on MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD:
“By reducing activation in brain regions implicated in the expression of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors, namely the amygdala and insula, and increasing connectivity between the amygdala and hippocampus, MDMA may allow for reprocessing of traumatic memories and emotional engagement with therapeutic processes.”(8)
―Allison A. Feduccia and Michael C. Mithoefer
The MDMA experience often helps individuals feel more empathy towards themselves and others, which is why the compound is useful for healing individual distress and interpersonal conflict.
The Efficacy of MDMA Therapy
Some studies suggest that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can alleviate the symptoms of several hard-to-treat conditions. These include PTSD, alcohol use disorder (colloquially known as alcoholism and substance abuse), eating disorder symptoms, and social anxiety in autistic adults.(10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
It is estimated that 3% to 27% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives, and about 33% of those are said to be treatment-resistant (which means the patient failed to respond to two or more treatments). Before MDMA’s classification as a Schedule I substance (a drug with a supposed high risk of abuse and no medical value), psychiatrists reported that it appeared to help by simultaneously reducing defensiveness and fear, while increasing relaxation and trust. These effects help patients confront their trauma(s), rather than avoid them, and open up more to their therapist.(15, 16, 17, 18)
MDMA therapy seems to help where other treatments may fail because of its unique pharmacological effects. MDMA enhances empathy, trust, and cooperation, which is mediated through the release of serotonin, norepinephrine, and oxytocin. Traditional medications prescribed for PTSD, such as SSRI antidepressants, don’t produce these positive subjective effects. In fact, many patients who take SSRIs experience an “emotional blunting” effect: a dampening of both negative and positive emotions.(19, 20, 21. 22)
Individuals who use MDMA (aka the “love drug”) often describe the experience as energetic, comforting, and euphoric. They are also more prone to expressing things they may ordinarily be afraid or embarrassed to discuss. MDMA can also make users feel more connected with the people they love and can increase feelings of intimacy and sensuality. In the context of couples counseling, it may help partners deal with trauma from outside of the relationship that is impacting them. An example would be if one partner had experienced sexual assault before the relationship and is having trouble being intimate as a result.
Is MDMA Legal?
In 2017, the FDA granted Breakthrough Therapy designation for MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD based on the results of several clinical trials. A breakthrough therapy is a drug that can treat a serious or life-threatening condition alone, or in combination with one or more additional drugs. It also means that evidence suggests the medication may demonstrate substantial improvement over existing treatments.(23, 24, 25)
Breakthrough therapy designation helps expedite drug development and review. Results from Phase III clinical trials (a study that tests a new drug’s safety and efficacy against an existing treatment option) on MDMA have already been published. The FDA requires a Phase III trial before approving a drug.
For example, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) just concluded its Phase III clinical trial utilizing MDMA to treat PTSD. The trial showed very statistically significant results, with 67% of participants no longer meeting the qualification for PTSD after three sessions compared with 32% in the placebo group. Additionally, 88% of the participants treated with MDMA experienced a clinically meaningful reduction in symptoms.(26)
Based on this progress, MDMA therapy (for the treatment of PTSD) will likely soon be legal. The treatment is on track for FDA approval in 2023, at which point patients with the condition (not just those enrolled in clinical trials) will be able to legally access the treatment.(27)
Accessing MDMA-Assisted Therapy
It is important to remember that MDMA is still undergoing clinical trials, and while the results so far are promising, it is still a controlled substance. However, underground MDMA therapy can be found in some places. This can be practically difficult and carry some safety risks if the therapists/guides are unscrupulous. There are many trustworthy and well-respected therapists, of course, and they may be able to facilitate your MDMA experience in an empathic and beneficial way, but they are not able to do so legally.
It is also possible to join a clinical trial, which you find using this database from Psychedelic.support. By joining one of these trials, you may be able to experience the unique setup of psychedelic therapy and play an important role in helping researchers better understand how the treatment works.(28)
There are currently no legal retreats involving the use of MDMA. But should the compound be decriminalized or legalized in any cities or countries in the future, MDMA therapy retreats may then arise. For example, MDMA and psilocybin were recently legalized in Australia, with rule-making concluding in 2024. Once the appropriate regulations are in place, this new legal status could open the door for commercial MDMA retreats and treatment centers.(29)
The Risks and Side Effects of MDMA
Many of the risks of MDMA are associated with recreational use. Some people take MDMA crystal/powder or ecstasy pills without testing the substance. The product may not be MDMA, but a more harmful drug or contain some MDMA and other impurities.
People using MDMA in a recreational setting may also take high doses of the drug, redosing frequently during a single session. They may spend hours dancing while dehydrated in a hot, poorly ventilated environment. All these factors, in addition to taking MDMA regularly, may increase the risk of neurotoxicity (damage to the brain).(30)
Research on the link between recreational MDMA use and neurotoxicity is mixed. Heavy MDMA use may damage serotonin receptors, negatively impacting memory, learning, and mood. However, some research has found that moderate MDMA use is unrelated to neurotoxicity.(30, 31, 32)
MDMA therapy involves limited, moderate doses of a pure compound without the risk of overheating. During MDMA-assisted therapy, medical providers are on hand to monitor your session and provide support if you need it.
Also, according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, participants didn’t experience the notorious MDMA ‘comedown’ (negative effects on mood and cognition) when they took MDMA in a clinical context. Instead, the participants had the experience during the day, which ensured their sleep wasn’t affected. Dr. Ben Sessa, the study’s lead author, said this helps explain why there was no hangover.(33, 34)
While some studies suggest that MDMA therapy is relatively safe, it’s still possible to experience some side effects, regardless of the context in which you take the drug. One study showed that the most common side effects of MDMA include bruxism (jaw clenching), sweating, thirst, nausea, accelerated heart rate and breathing, tense muscles, and blurred vision. These MDMA side effects only occur during the treatment.(35, 36, 37)
MDMA and You, How “Molly” Impacts the Mind and Spirit
MDMA does not typically impart what researchers have defined as a “mystical experience,” which is one of the ways it differs from some classic psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin. This is not to say that it does not impact users in a spiritual sense. Anecdotal evidence suggests that MDMA can deliver a powerfully spiritual experience, though it tends to be distinct from the dramatic “breakthrough” experiences delivered by other psychedelic drugs.
If drugs like LSD and DMT offer mystical experiences pertaining to the nature of reality, the experience derived from MDMA has more to do with the nature of relationships, whether to ourselves or to others. As an empathogen, MDMA’s capacity to increase empathy, compassion, and intimacy may dramatically improve one’s personal or interpersonal connections, which could, in turn, profoundly impact consciousness. Many users have also anecdotally reported that MDMA inspires a stronger connection to the natural environment or the arts—particularly music. This is why MDMA is so commonly associated with dancing and music.
Getting Ready for Your MDMA Journey
MDMA has a moderate duration of about three-six hours. It is not as psychologically rigorous an experience as LSD or DMT—quite the opposite. Most individuals report that the MDMA experience is almost uniformly pleasant (hence the nickname “ecstasy”), and rarely do those who take it undergo anything akin to a “bad trip.” That doesn’t mean that your MDMA journey will not benefit from preparation, however. Particularly if you hope to maximize the therapeutic potential of MDMA. This means putting a bit of effort into establishing the appropriate “set and setting.”
The “set” determines one’s personal condition, both physically and mentally. Whether taking MDMA recreationally or therapeutically, there are a few things you can do to prepare yourself before the journey:
Read about the experience and talk about it with others who have tried MDMA. This will better equip you to navigate the experience. We’ve also created a specially curated list of psychedelic podcasts
to help you learn more about the psychedelic experience.
Spend some time pondering your goals in relation to the journey and what you hope to take away from it. Journaling can help. Even if you’re simply taking MDMA for a night of dancing, it’s wise to do so with an understanding of what you hope it will add to the experience. Certainly, you will want to consider this in a therapeutic setting.
MDMA can be physically demanding, particularly if you plan on dancing or if you will be participating in therapy via a clinical trial. Prepare your body by eating a healthy diet for a few days before your trip. Some people prefer to fast the day before and/or the morning of the journey. While others prefer to eat beforehand to avoid getting hungry during the experience. Consider which is best for your body. If you do decide to eat beforehand, make it a light meal. During the experience, drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
While you may be seeking a psychedelic experience to address a mental health issue, it is never advisable to enter the journey while you are experiencing distressing symptoms. Calm your mind as much as possible in the hours leading up to taking MDMA. Many find that meditation
and yoga help. If you are concerned about MDMA and your mental health, you should consult a medical provider regarding recreational and/or medicinal MDMA usage.
“Setting” describes the social and material circumstances under which you’ll take the drug. That means being in the right place, populated by the right people and things.
A few suggestions:
- Make sure you’re in a space that offers reliable legal and physical safety for the duration of your MDMA journey.
- It is often enjoyable to access both indoor and outdoor spaces.
- MDMA is famous for its ability to increase physical intimacy, sexual arousal, and libido. Make sure that you’re around people who you trust under these circumstances.
- Be aware of noise levels. Cranking up the music to dance is a fine idea, but be mindful of neighbors and those around you, both for your sake and theirs. You don’t want to be disrupted by a noise complaint.
- Keep plenty of water on hand. The most common risks associated with MDMA are overheating and dehydration.
The establishment of set and setting for personal use is relatively straightforward. However, many studies do not seem to cover set and setting in a clinical or trial environment. According to Charley Wininger, LP, LMHC, and author of Listening to Ecstasy: The Transformative Power of MDMA, some key ways exist to establish set and setting in the medical environment.
“Clinical trials are all about set and setting: The “set” (mindset) is established with the client (with the clinical trials and with underground sitters) beforehand during several pre-medicine sessions, where an intake is taken; the therapist-client connection is established, realistic expectations are set forth, questions and concerns are addressed, etc. The setting (surroundings) are also a distinct part of the clinical trials and part of any respectable underground practitioner’s surroundings, with attention to a comfortable (i.e., an at-home-feeling) room. Such as a comfortable couch or futon, low lights, maybe some flowers, a nearby bathroom, eyeshades, evocative music through headphones or speakers, etc.”
―Charley Wininger, LP, LMHC
Furthermore, the MAPS Manual for MDMA-Assisted Therapy has similar recommendations. Many of these align with preparatory actions that one would take if using MDMA for personal use. However, there are some key differences:(38)
MAPS emphasizes that you should ensure that you have a supportive social group. They recommend asking a friend, partner, family member, or other loved one to spend time with you at the end of an MDMA-assisted therapy session. This should be cleared with your therapist to help your loved one understand the emotional support you may need and determine what is appropriate after the session.
Researchers and medical practitioners employed with MAPS place great importance on using music as a therapy tool. They create carefully curated playlists that are designed to help their patients relax and maximize the impact of MDMA. The music provided is paired with eye shades and headphones. This is intended to help you relax and enjoy the experience as much as possible.
MAPS considers the therapist’s role and attitude towards emotional support a critical part of the therapy process. MDMA therapists are expected to be empathetic guides throughout the process and to assist patients with remaining present during the experience. They are there to help guide you while you process any trauma or difficult memories that will likely arise during your session. They also help maintain what MAPS calls the “delicate balance between the inner experience and safe open-ended exploration of the experience.”
These are just a few examples from the MAPS Manual for MDMA-Assisted Therapy. Whether you plan on participating in a clinical trial, utilizing MDMA recreationally for self-growth, or undergoing MDMA-assisted therapy when it becomes more widely available, reviewing their entire manual may be a good idea. You can find it at MAPS.org. It is available as a free, downloadable PDF. You may also find it by following the link provided in the works cited.(38)
What to Expect During the MDMA Experience
While other psychedelic drugs can deliver unpredictable psychological content accompanied by dramatic emotional shifts throughout their journeys. Most users report that the MDMA experience is fairly consistent.
The progression usually goes something like this:
- You ingest the MDMA, and nothing happens for about 30-45 minutes.
- When it starts to take effect, you will initially notice light and color might begin to seem unusually vivid; then, at some point, you’ll realize that you feel exceedingly pleasant physically and mentally. This sensation is subtle at first but increases steadily. You may feel warm and begin to sweat.
- MDMA is famous for its ability to increase physical intimacy, sexual arousal, and libido. Make sure that you’re around people who you trust under these circumstances.
- Typically, the MDMA high will peak and plateau within one to two hours. During this period, most people report that they feel absolutely wonderful. Physical touch becomes highly pleasurable, and you’ll likely feel an almost unconditional sense of love and compassion for yourself and those around you. This is when the most rewarding work is done in a therapeutic setting. During this period, you may experience strong visual distortions such as persistent light tracers and powerfully illuminated colors.
- Once the effects of MDMA begin to ebb, it’s not uncommon to feel physically exhausted and emotionally drained, sometimes quite severely.
While “bad trips” are rare when it comes to MDMA (one study indicates that only 3.9% of MDMA users experience challenging events), the emotional comedown can inspire some negative feelings like exhaustion, sadness, or even a hangover. Part of this may be because it can feel somewhat disappointing to return to normalcy when you were feeling so ecstatic, but much of it is due to your body being depleted of its stores of the neurotransmitter serotonin throughout your journey. Lack of sleep, overexertion, and underhydration can all amplify the emotional comedown.
You can do a few things to offset the downturn(38, 39) :
- Talk with a therapist or friend about it (sometimes all it takes is discussing these negative feelings to alleviate them, especially if laughter is involved)
- Meditate or perform yoga to calm your mind and body
- Drink plenty of water and eat something light (fruit is ideal)
- Go for a walk
After your MDMA journey, it’s time for integration. This is the process of analyzing your experience to determine how it can be applied to your everyday life. In a therapeutic setting, some light integration will likely be performed immediately after the journey, though you may feel too drained for deep discussion. This is partially why many psychedelic therapists schedule an integration session for the following day, sometimes with follow-ups a week or even a month afterward. Integration really is the most dynamic work done when using psychedelics for healing purposes. It can yield incredible results, particularly if you keep with it for the days, weeks, and months following a journey. This is the beautiful work of a lifetime in order to create lasting change.
Integration comes in many forms, but a few common examples include:
- Talking with a trained therapist.
- Talking with your tripsitter, trip companions, or even a friend who wasn’t there.
- Journaling or writing a letter to yourself or someone else.
- Creating art.
- Meditating or performing yoga.
- Initiating a daily gratitude practice.
- Grounding the lessons each day. For example, if you felt increased compassion during your journey, perhaps you’d like to tease that feeling out even more in your daily life by beginning a Loving Kindness meditation practice.
Whatever form integration takes, remember that this is your opportunity to document and later return to the feelings of elation, openness, acceptance, and love that MDMA may open your mind to.