Reviewed by Angela Sheddan, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Antidepressants are some of the most widely-used prescription medications in the world. In fact, a data brief from the National Center for Health Statistics found that, from 2015 to 2018, more than 13 percent of all US adults aged 18 and up reported using antidepressant drugs within the last 30 days.
In other words, antidepressants are very common. They’re used by people with depression and other mental disorders, as well as certain physical conditions, to control symptoms and improve quality of life.
If you’ve read online health blogs or newspapers, or spent any time watching popular media, you may have seen articles or news segments suggesting that antidepressants are addictive drugs with the potential to produce substance use disorders.
Are antidepressants addictive? In short, no. Antidepressants don’t cause physical addiction like opioids and other addictive drugs. If you’re prescribed an antidepressant, it’s highly unlikely that you will experience “cravings” for your medication or become addicted to it.
However, in some cases, antidepressants need to be used for the long term, and stopping your treatment abruptly may cause you to temporarily get antidepressant withdrawal symptoms.
Below, we’ve explained what antidepressants are, how they work, types of antidepressants and the mental and physical conditions they’re used to treat.
We’ve also explained why antidepressants aren’t addictive drugs, as well as how the way these medications are portrayed in the media doesn’t always match up with reality.
Finally, we’ve covered how you can use antidepressants safely to treat depression, anxiety and other common conditions.
Before we get into the question of whether or not antidepressants are addictive, let’s quickly go over the basics of what antidepressants are and the mental health conditions they’re often used to treat.
Antidepressant medications work by changing the levels of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, in your brain and body. Neurotransmitters are “messengers” that carry signals throughout your body and regulate certain aspects of your moods, feelings and behaviors.
You can almost think of neurotransmitters as the workers in your brain’s communication system — naturally occurring chemicals that are involved in a variety of different essential functions.
Experts in mental health believe that by increasing your levels of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and/or dopamine, antidepressants can help to make the symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses less severe.
Common types of antidepressants include:
Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs)
Our complete list of antidepressant medications goes into more detail about how these common antidepressants work, as well as major differences between the types of medication you may be prescribed if you have depression or an anxiety disorder.
Although antidepressants are mostly prescribed to people with depression, they’re also used as treatments for other mental and physical health issues.
Common uses for antidepressants include:
Treating anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Reducing the severity of menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes
Managing chronic pain from injuries and other conditions
Controlling symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Helping with sleep issues, such as insomnia
If you have clinical depression or one of the conditions covered above, your healthcare provider may suggest using an antidepressant to lower the severity of your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
So, are antidepressants addictive? Antidepressants can take several weeks to begin working as treatments for depression or anxiety, meaning you’ll usually need to take this type of medication for several months if you've been diagnosed with one of these disorders.
Taking medication every day can feel unusual, especially if this is your first time taking a pill on a daily basis to improve your mental or physical health.
After a few weeks of regular use, most people who take antidepressant medications begin to feel improvements in their sleep patterns, their eating habits and their ability to focus on tasks, such as getting work done.
Over time, these improvements are often accompanied by reduced depression, anxiety or OCD symptoms.
For the vast majority of people, the effects of antidepressants are positive, with depression and anxiety becoming less severe and daily life gradually returning to normal.
If you’ve recently started to take a type of antidepressant, noticed improvements in your life and feel like you shouldn’t stop taking your medication, it’s easy to assume that you’re “addicted” to antidepressants.
This feeling can be especially strong when you’re aware of antidepressant withdrawal effects — a topic we’ve covered in more detail further down the page.
It can become even worse if you’ve ever stumbled across blog posts, YouTube videos or other content that exaggerates the risks or adverse effects of antidepressants.
Needing to use antidepressants to get relief from depression, anxiety or another mental health issue doesn’t mean that you’re a drug addict. Contrary to what you may have read online or in the news, using medication on a daily basis isn’t a form of prescription drug abuse.
Instead, it’s a normal, evidence-based way to treat depression and help you feel and function better on a daily basis.
To put this difference in perspective, let’s look at the way antidepressants are used compared to a typical substance use disorder.
A substance use disorder occurs when a person’s use of illicit drugs or alcohol causes problems for them in life, typically at home, work or in an educational environment. Put simply, drug or alcohol use has a clear negative effect on a person’s health and general life.
Common substance use disorders include alcohol abuse, stimulant abuse, opioid addiction and misuse of depressants and sedatives. Sometimes, people can develop psychological addiction to substances such as cannabis.
When a person has a severe substance use disorder, they may obsess over having access to a certain substance, lose the ability to function without it, or face legal or financial problems due to their addiction.
In other words, the substance dominates their life, and their need to use it permanently occupies one of the top spots on their daily schedule. They might feel like they need to use the substance even if they’re aware that it’s not good for them.
Taking a prescribed antidepressant on a regular basis is very different from being addicted to a drug and having a substance use disorder.
Although misuse of antidepressants and antidepressant abuse are technically possible, they’re incredibly uncommon. Far from making life worse for users, antidepressants typically make life better for people with depression, anxiety and other common mental health issues.
It’s important to keep in mind that depression is a medical issue and taking an antidepressant is a form of treatment, not an addictive, impulsive behavior.
Just like taking medication every day for heart disease or high blood pressure doesn’t make you a drug addict, nor does taking an antidepressant on a frequent basis to treat depression, anxiety or a related mental health condition.
Although antidepressants aren’t physically addictive, they can cause symptoms of withdrawal if you suddenly stop taking your medication.
Antidepressant withdrawal is referred to clinically as “antidepressant discontinuation syndrome,” and it’s a common issue for people who abruptly stop taking an antidepressant without tapering their dosage over time.
Withdrawal symptoms don’t affect all people who stop taking antidepressants. In fact, research suggests that only around 20 percent of people who undergo antidepressant treatment develop withdrawal symptoms after the abrupt discontinuation of their medication.
Common symptoms of antidepressant withdrawal include:
Flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, lethargy, headaches, sweating and muscle aches
Balance issues, such as dizziness, vertigo and lightheadedness
Sleep issues, such as insomnia, vivid dreams and nightmares
Sensory disturbances, such as “tingling” or “burning” feelings
Hyperarousal symptoms, such as anxiety, mania or irritability
Nausea and vomiting
Severe withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants are rare. In most people who abruptly stop taking antidepressants and develop symptoms, the issues are mild and typically continue for a period of one to two weeks.
Our guide to antidepressant withdrawal goes into greater detail about these symptoms, as well as the steps that you can take to avoid them if you decide to stop antidepressant treatment.
Antidepressants are safe and effective medications for most people. They’re used by millions of adults every year to manage mood disorders, including severe depression that often doesn’t get better without medication.
Although antidepressants are safe when taken correctly, like with all prescribed medications, it’s important to closely follow your healthcare provider’s instructions.
If you’re prescribed an antidepressant, make sure to:
Take the prescribed dose at the right time. Your healthcare provider will tell you how much of your medication to take, as well as when to take it. Follow their instructions and make sure to only ever take your medication as directed.
Wait for several weeks before assessing your results. Antidepressants often require several weeks to begin working, during which you may only notice mild improvements in your depressive symptoms.
Make sure to keep taking your medication for at least four to six weeks before assessing your results.
If your antidepressant doesn’t work, let your provider know. You might need to take several antidepressants before finding one that’s effective for you, especially if you have severe symptoms or recurrent depression.
Let your healthcare provider know if you don’t notice any changes after four to six weeks of antidepressant treatment. They might suggest adjusting your dosage or switching to a different class of antidepressants.
If you get side effects, tell your healthcare provider. Antidepressants can cause side effects, from dry mouth to issues that affect your sexual function. Make sure to tell your healthcare provider if you experience any negative side effects.
Seek out medical attention if you’re pregnant. Some antidepressants may be unsafe during pregnancy. If you’re pregnant or plan to become pregnant and use medication to treat depression, make sure to let your healthcare provider know as soon as you can.
If you want to stop taking your antidepressant, inform your provider. It’s often okay to stop taking antidepressants, but it’s important to gradually taper your dosage to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
If you’d prefer to stop taking your medication, let your healthcare provider know. They’ll help you put together a plan to safely stop using your antidepressant while limiting your risk of common side effects.
Antidepressants aren’t addictive. If you have depression, anxiety or another condition and take an antidepressant, you are not a drug addict. Instead, you’re a responsible adult doing the right thing to treat your symptoms, improve your well-being and enjoy a higher quality of life.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe an antidepressant on its own, or suggest that you take a medication in combination with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
If you think your antidepressant isn’t working, it’s important to let your healthcare provider know as soon as you can. It’s also important to inform them if you’d like to stop using your medication so that you can gradually taper your dosage and avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Worried you might have depression, anxiety or another mental health condition? We offer online psychiatry, allowing you to connect with a provider online and, if appropriate, access medication to help you to control your symptoms.
Interested in learning more before you get started? Our guide to depression medications covers the essentials of antidepressants, from how different classes of antidepressants work to specific medications and more.
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