The good news: even if you’ve taken antidepressants for a while, they’re usually non-addictive. The not-so-good news: abruptly stopping your prescribed medication or illicit antidepressants often results in uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Let’s take a closer look.
How Antidepressants Work
Depression, also referred to as depressive disorder or clinical depression, is caused by a combination of biological, environmental, genetic, and psychological factors. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) also notes that it’s often a co-occurring disorder to other health conditions such as cancer, chronic pain, diabetes, and heart disease, to name a few.
There are nine types of depression, including clinical, postpartum, seasonal affective disorder or SAD, bipolar disorder, and situational. Here’s an overview of all classifications of the disorder and how they present.
NIMH indicates that medical professionals might prescribe antidepressants for temporary or long-term relief or stabilization of these symptoms, which we’re listing verbatim for clarification:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, or being “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
- Restlessness or irritability
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that don’t ease even with treatment
According to Harvard Health, “Antidepressants work by altering the levels of neurotransmitters—chemical messengers that attach to receptors on neurons (nerve cells) throughout the body and influence their activity.”
Symptoms of Antidepressant Withdrawal
Harvard Health indicates that person’s brain adjusts to the medication-prompted change of neurotransmitters, so if they stop taking antidepressants suddenly or without a plan for gradual release of one medication to another, the shift causes symptoms that are “mild to distressing if the level changes too much, too fast.”
Some antidepressants cause more withdrawal symptoms than others. In March 2020, Harvard Health stated that:
“Among the newer antidepressants, those that influence the serotonin system—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, now commonly known as SRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)—are associated with a number of withdrawal symptoms, often called antidepressant or SRI discontinuation syndrome. Stopping antidepressants such as bupropion (Wellbutrin) that do not affect serotonin systems—dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors—seems less troublesome overall, although some patients develop extreme irritability.”
Most medical professionals recommend a period of a few weeks to gradually reduce antidepressant use. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are some of the most common symptoms of antidepressant withdrawal:
- “Electric shock” or tingling sensations
- Flu-like symptoms, such as achy muscles and chills
- Unusual or vivid dreams
Some people experience varying withdrawal symptoms for up to one month if they abruptly stop taking their medication. Mayo clarifies that this withdrawal phase doesn’t mean a person is addicted to antidepressants, but rather that the brain has to adjust to the fluctuation in neurotransmitters.
A Return of Depression
One of the most common concerns of antidepressant withdrawal is the return of depressive disorder, another reason why it’s vital to not stop the medication without medical supervision.
A person’s regular doctor or an attending physician in a treatment facility is a valuable resource if an individual notices depression symptoms. Sometimes these warning signs are overlooked and categorized as feelings related to withdrawal. In cases like these, a medical professional might recommend a different antidepressant or another medication entirely to help ease the transition.
Some people who experience temporary conditions of depression such as SAD or postpartum disorder and are initially prescribed low-dose antidepressants might not need a change in medication, but still have to use caution when choosing to stop. Tapering off under the recommendation of a medical professional is best.
Easing Antidepressant Withdrawal Symptoms
To help your mind and body adjust to the change in medication, these holistic remedies may provide some relief:
- Invest in a light box with low-emitting UV light, which simulates sunshine and helps raise energy levels and stabilize circadian rhythms.
- Exercise daily to naturally boost serotonin and other “feel good” chemicals in the brain, manage stress, and reduce chronic pain.
- Fuel your body with healthy food, which regulates blood sugar and helps decrease mood swings.
- Find different ways to socialize so you feel connected to people you care about and your community.
- Use routines and rituals to provide a sense of grounding and purpose.
- Try new ways to improve your sleep habits, including a more regular bedtime, comfy linens and pillows, or a special quieting ritual such as reflection or meditation that prompts your brain to prepare for sleep.
These aren’t cures for clinical depression, but they help put you in control of how you manage both antidepressant withdrawal and, if you change medications, your condition overall.
Twin Lakes’ Whole-Person Philosophy
Depression is a health disorder with many facets, and to treat it effectively requires individualized care, not simply an off-the-shelf prescription. If you or someone you love needs a more dedicated approach to whole-person health, talk to one of our admission advisors today.