Antidepressant withdrawal can produce uncomfortable symptoms and result in a relapse of depression. Here’s how to safely and comfortably withdraw from antidepressants.
Major depressive disorder affects more than 16 million Americans in any given year, and it’s the leading cause of disability in the U.S., according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Another 3.3 million American adults suffer from persistent depressive disorder, which typically continues for at least two years. Antidepressants are effective for treating depression and can restore your happiness and sense of wellbeing. But once you’re ready to go off the medication, antidepressant withdrawal is a serious concern if you don’t taper off your doses with the help of a physician or mental health professional.
How Long Should You Stay on Antidepressants?
According to Harvard Medical School, if you’re doing well on your antidepressant and aren’t suffering from negative side effects, you can stay on your medication indefinitely. But for many, the side effects–which may include decreased sexual desire, insomnia, drowsiness, and simply not feeling like yourself–may become unacceptable with time, and you may decide that it’s time to go off the medication.
This decision should be made carefully, since going off an antidepressant too soon–or too quickly–can result in a relapse of the depression. Talk to your physician or mental health provider about your decision, and work closely with him or her to develop an antidepressant withdrawal plan that will ensure your comfort and help prevent the depression from returning.
Why Antidepressant Withdrawal Occurs
Antidepressants work by changing the function of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in the brain that attach to receptors on the nerve cells throughout the body. Eventually, nerve cells adapt to the changes, but if the neurotransmitter levels change too quickly, such as due to stopping your medication cold-turkey or reducing your dose too fast, antidepressant withdrawal symptoms will set in, and these can be very uncomfortable–although they’re not typically dangerous.
The antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SRIs, and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, are commonly associated with withdrawal symptoms that are known as “antidepressant discontinuation syndrome.” These medications work by keeping serotonin and norepinephrine–both feel-good brain chemicals–active in the body longer by preventing re-uptake, or re-absorption.
The most commonly prescribed SRIs include Paxil, Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, and Celexa. The most commonly prescribed SNRIs include Effexor, Cymbalta, and Pristiq. Dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, which include Wellbutrin, don’t commonly cause these uncomfortable symptoms when you quit, although quitting cold-turkey can lead to extreme irritability.
How Long Do Antidepressant Withdrawal Symptoms Last?
Before going off antidepressants, you may wonder, how long do antidepressant withdrawal symptoms last? The answer is, it depends on a number of factors, including how long you’ve been taking them, the dosage, and your biology. In general, symptoms can last days or weeks. But easing off antidepressants slowly prevents many of the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, which often include:
- Digestive symptoms like nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.
- Blood vessel symptoms that lead to excessive sweating and flushing.
- Changes in sleep patterns, including insomnia or the onset of unpleasant dreams.
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or problems with balance.
- Tremors, restless legs, and problems with chewing and talking.
- Mood swings, agitation, anxiety, depression, confusion, or irritability.
- Strange sensations like hyper-sensitivity to sound, ringing in the ears, or brain zaps, which feel like electrical shocks to the brain.
Antidepressant Withdrawal Relief: How to Get Off Antidepressants Without Symptoms
Antidepressant withdrawal relief comes from tapering off your doses slowly so that your brain can adjust to increasingly lower doses over time, and without experiencing uncomfortable symptoms. If you’re ready to get off antidepressants, here are some tips that can help prevent withdrawal symptoms altogether.
Make a plan with your physician. Your physician can help you develop a tapering-off plan and prescribe the appropriate doses for weaning yourself off antidepressants. In general, you’ll allow two to six weeks between dosage changes.
Engage in therapy. A major concern for withdrawing from antidepressants is the risk of depression relapse. Psychotherapy can dramatically improve your chances of staying depression-free for the long-term.
Get some exercise. For many, exercise is as effective as medication for reducing symptoms of depression. Staying active while tapering off can help prevent a recurrence of the depression as well as keep your general mood stable.
Check in regularly. Your physician will want to monitor you throughout the weaning process. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any mood changes or other symptoms you experience. Once you’re completely off the antidepressant, check in each month for several months to ensure you don’t experience any extended antidepressant withdrawal symptoms and the depression doesn’t return.
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