How Long Does Withdrawal from Antidepressants Last?

Woman sick in bed

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Antidepressant withdrawal can make you feel edgy and out of sorts. You may feel like you have the flu (sluggish with a headache and nausea), have trouble sleeping and concentrating, and experience anxiety and even thoughts of suicide. For some, the symptoms can be very similar to the ones that prompted them to take an antidepressant in the first place.

These physical and mental symptoms are caused by the sudden decrease of the brain chemical serotonin. Antidepressants work by increasing the amount of serotonin in your brain to boost your mood, so when you stop abruptly, these levels take a dive. Antidepressants are not habit-forming, however, so you won’t experience any long-term brain changes, cravings, or drug-seeking behavior like you may with other drugs.

Also called discontinuation syndrome, antidepressant withdrawal is pretty common. It happens to roughly 20% of people who suddenly stop or drastically reduce their dose after regularly taking antidepressants for at least a month. Some drugs have higher rates of withdrawal than others, but it can happen to anyone and with any type of antidepressant.

Signs & Symptoms

Some of the symptoms that have been reported by people with depression who have quit antidepressants cold turkey include the following (although you probably won't experience them all, and may not experience any):

  • Flu-like symptoms, such as dizziness, headache, nausea, weakness, lack of energy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Agitation, anxiety, or restlessness
  • Paresthesias or feelings of tingling or "pins and needles"
  • Tachycardia or increased heart rate
  • Hypertension or increased blood pressure 
  • Sweating
  • Tremors or unintentional trembling or shaking
  • Nausea, vomiting, or abdominal cramping
  • Muscle spasms
  • Feeling like you suddenly need to urinate

In most cases, symptoms are fairly mild and will begin in two to four days and last for a week or two. If you're having a relapse of your depression, however, the symptoms may get worse.

Coping & Relief

Perhaps the best way to cope with antidepressant withdrawal is to prevent it in the first place by making sure to never stop or adjust the dosage of your medication without first talking to your mental health care profession. Here are a few more ways to prevent or cope with antidepressant withdrawal:

Ask Yourself: Why Am I Quitting?

This question could be important if you need further treatment during withdrawal, or afterward. Do you feel you are over your depression? Do you dislike the side effects of the medication? Or are you unable to maintain the cost of your medication? These are all very different reasons that have important implications for what your experience of withdrawal will be like.

Remember, depression is a serious and potentially life-threatening illness if it is not properly treated. It's important to consider all of your options and work with your healthcare provider to make the best choice for you.

Taper Off Slowly

Tapering off your antidepressant can help minimize some of the side effects of withdrawal. There’s no one tapering schedule that works for everyone—and it may change depending on how you respond. In most cases, your doctor will decide how rapidly or slowly you wean off the drug based on the following factors:

  • Your symptoms
  • The type of antidepressant you’re taking
  • How long you’ve been taking the medication
  • Your dosage
  • The drug’s half-life (how long it takes for half of the medication to leave your body)

Explore an Alternative

There are several different types of antidepressant medication that work differently in the brain, have different side effects, and tend to create different withdrawal experiences for the people who take them. These include tricyclic antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and atypical antidepressants.

If you don't like how your medication makes you feel, it is possible that you have been misdiagnosed (for example, you may have been diagnosed with major depression when you actually have bipolar disorder, which requires a different type of medication), or that your symptoms will respond more positively to a different medication from the one you were originally prescribed.

Responses to antidepressants are very individual, so talk to your doctor about how the medication you have been prescribed is affecting you. For example, you may feel better emotionally on antidepressants but dislike the side effects, or you may do better with psychotherapy or lifestyle changes. Or you may be having trouble with your antidepressant due to alcohol misuse or the use of other psychoactive drugs. All of these possibilities are best discussed with a family doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist, who will help you figure out an alternative treatment plan.

Talk to Your Doctor About Medication

Both Prozac and the over-the-counter allergy medication Benadryl (diphenhydramine) have been found effective in minimizing the symptoms of antidepressant withdrawal. Prozac has a long half-life, so taking a pill or two and then stopping won't cause any additional signs of withdrawal. Benadryl does have sedative effects, however, and may add to any feelings of sluggishness.

Start Moving

A lack of energy and depressed mood will likely make exercise the last thing you want to do, but it's important to give it a try. Exercise can help keep depression at bay by helping to release feel-good endorphins and provide a positive outlet for stress.

Warnings

Although rare, it should be noted that occasionally people have experienced very severe reactions to discontinuing antidepressant medications. If you or someone you know has had any of the following symptoms in response to reducing or discontinuing antidepressants, seek medical help immediately. While these extreme reactions can be frightening to the person experiencing them, and to those around them, they are well-recognized medical symptoms that can be treated.

  • Delirium: Sudden disorientation in time and place, confusion, restlessness, agitation, and difficulties with working memory (remembering aspects of a current line of thought)
  • Psychosis: Disconnection from reality, particularly involving delusions and/or hallucinations
  • Suicidal feelings: While many people with depression report occasional or frequent suicidal feelings, it's important to seek help immediately if these feelings occur during antidepressant withdrawal. Untreated depression is a major risk of suicide.

If you're having suicidal thoughts, call your mental healthcare provider or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to talk to a trained counselor.

Beyond mild and potentially serious side effects, there are several other dangers that can occur from abruptly stopping your medication. For one, stopping your medication can set you back in your treatment, increasing the time it will take to start feeling like yourself again. Relapse is another danger to consider.

Relapse

Research shows that anxiety and pain that can occur alongside depression may increase the risk of relapse to depression after discontinuing an antidepressant. If you have problems with anxiety or chronic pain, you should be particular careful about discontinuing medication as you may be more likely to relapse. Your antidepressant may also help with your symptoms of anxiety or pain, which may feel worse after you stop taking the medication.

Long-Term Treatment

Although a diagnosis of depression is by no means a life sentence, it is important to consider your long-term well-being when thinking about your medication. Over half of the people who experience depression will experience it again at some point in their lives, often more than once.

Research looking into what makes relapse likely for adults with the main diagnosis of major depressive disorder, show that antidepressants help during the acute stages of depression, and reduce the chances of relapse, but studies of people who felt better after taking antidepressants have indicated that there are no established, validated markers of individual relapse risk after stopping taking antidepressants. Some people even relapse while on antidepressant medication. Therefore, it is especially important to work with your doctor to figure out what is the best course of treatment for you.

A Word From Verywell

Although antidepressants can have troubling side effects and don't always help right away, many people are helped by these medications. They aren't a magic pill and they don't replace the need for psychological support and therapy, but with patience, you and your doctor may be able the find a medication that relieves your symptoms of depression. Although finding the right medication can often take perseverance, it can vastly improve the quality of life for many people with depression.

It is important not to try and manage your medication alone. If it isn't working, or you don't like the side effects, don't just quit on your own.

You, your doctor, and your support team can work together to keep you safe and comfortable while you figure out the right approach to treatment. Never hesitate to reach our if you feel in despair, and don't try and self-medicate. Help is just a phone call away. Call 911 if you need to.

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