How Long Does Withdrawal From Antidepressants Last?

Woman sick in bed

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

Overview

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 in some newer forms of antidepressants, which regulate the levels of serotonin in your brain to boost your mood. So naturally, when you stop taking them these levels take a dive. Other antidepressants work by altering levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, which may also cause discomfort once you stop taking these medications.

Antidepressants are not considered addictive by doctors, however, it is possible to develop a physical dependence on these medications. In rare cases, those who've reported abuse of antidepressants were motivated by the drug's psychostimulant qualities and effects.

Signs & Symptoms

Some of the symptoms that have been reported by people with depression who have stopped taking their antidepressants could include the following:

  • 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
  • Difficulty urinating

In most cases, withdrawal symptoms are fairly mild in the first one to three days and may intensify on the fourth or fifth day before they subside and may persist for up to three weeks. If you're having a relapse of your depression, however, the symptoms may get worse.

The experience of antidepressant withdrawal varies greatly depending on the person, the type of antidepressant, as well as the dosage and length of time the drug had been taken. You will likely experience withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop taking your antidepressants, but can ease some of the discomfort by gradually reducing your medication instead.

Coping & Relief

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 doctor or mental health care professional. Your doctor can help you devise a plan for discontinuing your medication while limiting or avoiding the negative effects of withdrawal.

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? 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 could 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 may create different withdrawal experiences for the people who take and discontinue them. The types 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's 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). It's also possible 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 use 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

While antidepressants like Prozac (fluoxetine) have a longer half-life, they may still cause symptoms of withdrawal. If you need support in managing your antidepressant withdrawal symptoms, over-the-counter antihistamines or sleep aids can help minimize some of that discomfort. These medications do produce 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 factor for suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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's 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 major depressive disorder (MDD) shows 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. An antidepressant isn't a magic pill and it doesn'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. Though finding the right medication can often take time, patience, and 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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