antidepressants withdrawal

Modified: 22nd Jul 2019

Last updated on July 22nd, 2019 at 02:47 pm

In an ideal world, no one would need to take antidepressants. But sadly, they can be the very medication that a person needs just to get through the day.

Nearly 25 million adults have been taking antidepressants for more than two years. That sort of long-term use can lead to further problems, counteracting any of their positive uses.

Long-term use doesn’t lead to addiction because antidepressants aren’t habit-forming. But they do affect chemical levels in the brain, so they cause feelings of withdrawal when you stop taking them.

If you or a loved one are experiencing antidepressants withdrawal, you may wonder what to do about it. Read on to learn more about withdrawal and how detox programs can help. 

What Causes Antidepressants Withdrawal?

Antidepressants largely affect serotonin or norepinephrine, the chemicals in the brain responsible for maintaining your mood.

When you stop taking antidepressants, you create a sudden drop in your levels of these neurotransmitters. This provokes a physiological response, often called “discontinuation syndrome.”

The symptoms happen while your body adjusts to its new levels of serotonin or norepinephrine. That’s why physicians recommend that you gradually taper off your dose, instead of quitting cold turkey.

Some patients wish to stop taking antidepressants because they feel they’ve gotten better. They want to return to “normal.”

Other patients find the cost of medication too prohibitive. They may not like the side effects, which make the antidepressants more problematic than the depression itself.

Patients may decide to switch forms of treatment, like swapping medication for psychotherapy. Women may stop taking antidepressants if they want to become pregnant.

It’s possible you’ve been misdiagnosed. If you’re taking the wrong form of antidepressants for your condition, it can end up making your illness worse.

The reason for quitting antidepressants can affect the withdrawal symptoms so it’s important to know why you’re quitting.

Antidepressants Withdrawal Symptoms

Symptoms can vary depending on why you or your loved one are quitting antidepressants. They also depend on the type of antidepressant causing the problem. In general terms, they can include:

  • Dizziness, headaches, weakness, fatigue, and nausea
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Vertigo
  • Agitation and restlessness
  • Paresthesias or tingling in the extremities 
  • Depression
  • Tremors or trembling
  • Loss of coordination
  • Irritability
  • Increased heart rate or palpitations
  • Mood swings
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety
  • Raised blood pressure 
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nightmares or otherwise vivid dreams
  • Sensations similar to electric shocks
  • Vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal cramps
  • Muscle spasms

Remember, you may not suffer any of these symptoms. Or, you may suffer other symptoms not listed here, depending on the medication you’re taking. 

It’s worth noting that in rare cases, extreme antidepressant withdrawal symptoms have been noted. These can include:

  • Suicidal tendencies or feelings
  • Psychosis, including hallucinations
  • Delirium and severe memory problems

These can be terrifying if you experience them, or if you’re around someone who does. Check the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website for more details.

If you or a loved one do experience these symptoms, seek medical assistance immediately. They’re all treatable with professional help.

Duration of Antidepressants Withdrawal

Withdrawal usually begins within three days of coming off your medication. They should subside within two weeks. Severe symptoms requiring medical treatment may take longer to alleviate.

Remember, this is not a sign of addiction. The withdrawal is a sign that your body is struggling. It can’t keep up with the chemical changes caused by the lack of medication.

Antidepressants Withdrawal Timeline 

The length of time you took the medication affects the symptoms. Short-term use of the antidepressant usually causes less intense symptoms than long-term use.

Other antidepressants have shorter half-lives and leave the body faster. So they cause more intense symptoms faster.

Longer half-life antidepressants, like Prozac, cause longer withdrawal because they stay in the body longer. But that makes symptoms less intense.

Because of the nature of antidepressants, there’s no fixed timeline. But symptoms normally appear within the first three days of stopping your medication. They usually subside after two to three weeks.

The problem with discontinuation syndrome is that it can undermine your attempts to quit the medication altogether. If symptoms last more than a month, it could indicate the return of your depression.

Detoxing from Antidepressants on Your Own

Some patients find they can cope with a detox on their own. You may need additional medication to deal with symptoms such as nausea or anxiety.

Consider taking time off of work — at least for a week after you’ve started your detox. 

Seek out counseling to help you through the worst of the symptoms. This can help you or your loved one to avoid turning to alcohol or other drugs to cope with antidepressant withdrawal.

Remember to take care of the physical symptoms, too. For example, treat the flu-like symptoms as you’d treat the flu.

Try to get plenty of exercise and natural daylight to help boost the natural levels of endorphins in the brain. Good nutrition is key to keeping your body fit and well during the difficult process of detoxing from antidepressants.

Medical Detox for Antidepressants

You could try a medical detox program which should limit your symptoms. In severe cases, you may wish to investigate residential or outpatient programs. This is particularly helpful if you’ve suffered from these symptoms in the past. 

How Medical Detox Works and What to Expect

Your doctor will let you gradually reduce doses until you no longer need the medication. This lets your body get used to the changing levels of chemicals in your brain. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to tapering off medication. Your doctor will prescribe you the right levels of medication depending on how long you’ve been taking the antidepressants. The type of medication is also a factor.

Your physician will work out a tapering plan and monitor your progress. You’ll reach a point where you can stop taking your dose altogether.

A medical detox works well in tandem with counseling. Following a detox program that includes a range of strategies makes it more likely you’ll succeed at quitting the medication.

Medications Available for Antidepressants Detox

The main medications fall into two groups. You may be prescribed other antidepressants to alleviate the worst of the antidepressants withdrawal symptoms.

Or you may be prescribed anti-nausea or anti-anxiety medication to treat those symptoms. Whatever medication you’re prescribed, ensure you take it for the greatest chance of success in detoxing from antidepressants.

You’re Not Alone

If you’ve developed a dependency, you don’t have go through antidepressants withdrawal alone. Help is available. 

At Addiction Treatment Services, we can find you the help you need. We will work to find the best treatment option for you and one that your insurance will cover. Find out more about our process by visiting our insurance information page.

Article Reviewed by Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPA

Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPADr. Keerthy Sunder, MD is an accomplished and internationally recognized expert in the field of addiction. He has earned diplomates from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, the American Board of Addiction Medicine, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.