Starting antidepressants can be scary at first, considering you don’t know what to expect. Will it work immediately? How long do you have to wait to see results? Unfortunately, many people start using depression meds, believing that the medication will ‘fix’ them at once.
Sadly, that’s not the case.
Your experience with antidepressants can be different than that of anyone else. For most people, it takes a few weeks before they can see any significant results. Four to six weeks is the expected duration for most users.
For others, antidepressants might work sooner than that. But, some users see little to no effect in even a month.
In other instances, the symptoms worsen for some people initially and only get better after a while.
Keeping all these variations into account, health care providers prescribe a low dose of antidepressants initially. Then, over time, they monitor the effect of the antidepressant on the patient and adjust the quantity accordingly.
In some cases, they may change the antidepressants, and the patient would have to try a few different options before finding a suitable one.
Here, we discuss what are antidepressants, their effectiveness, and the good and bad you should expect when using them for the first time.
How Do Antidepressants Work?
Depression affects the systems inside your brain, and antidepressants may help ease the symptoms. The drugs balance certain chemicals inside your brain, known as neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals inside the brain that pass messages between nerve cells in your brain and between nerves and other organs in the rest of your body. These nerve cells include serotonin and dopamine, also called the “happy hormones,” because they regulate emotions.
People believe that an imbalance in these chemicals causes depression. A chemical imbalance means too little or too many of certain neurotransmitters.
What are antidepressants? They are drugs that work inside your body to ease the symptoms of depression. They increase the availability of these chemical messengers to pass the signals along the nerves properly. By changing the chemical availability, antidepressants are thought to change your mood.
Apart from impacting the mood, neurotransmitters might also affect the pain signals passing through the nerves. This proposed mechanism explains the effectiveness of antidepressants in alleviating long-term pain.
However, depression is much more complicated than an excess or deficit of particular chemicals. So, there is currently no clear information on how antidepressants really work.
Let us make one thing very clear: antidepressants are not over-the-counter medications. You will need a doctor’s prescription to buy them. Looking at your condition, the doctor will prescribe a particular antidepressant and a specific dose.
Most importantly, antidepressants only ease the signs of depression – they don’t address the cause. That’s why they are mostly recommended with therapy to see any significant changes in the patients.
How Effective are Antidepressants?
Now that you know what are antidepressants, your next question might be: Are antidepressants effective? When answering this question, you have to be realistic.
Antidepressants do work, but they’re not your magic happy pill. Like any other medicine, they also take some time to show results.
While there are many antidepressants out there, it is not certain how well they will work for each individual. Doctors usually prescribe drugs that they consider to be effective. If it doesn’t work for an individual or isn’t well-tolerated, they switch to a different medication.
Sometimes you might have to try several different medications until you find the one that helps.
Research has shown that the benefits of antidepressants are directly related to the severity of depression. These drugs are effective in cases of chronic, moderate, and severe depression. Since they’re better than placebo, experts suggest using them in patients with severe depression.
However, doctors won’t usually prescribe antidepressants for mild depression and try to tackle the situation with therapy or other first-line treatments.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, up to 65% of the people taking antidepressants would experience an improvement.
How Soon Do Antidepressants Work?
Antidepressants work differently for every individual, and what works for one person might not work for the other. As a result, the medications work on trial and error. Plus, the effectiveness of antidepressants isn’t always connected to the amount of time they take to work.
A medicine that proves effective in relieving your depression within two weeks might take a month for another person. That’s because the user’s metabolism and severity of their condition affect the action of the antidepressants.
You usually have to take an antidepressant as a tablet. Initially, the doctor will prescribe a low dose, and you’ll have to take it regularly for at least two weeks before seeing an effect.
In some cases, users feel mild side effects at first. However, you shouldn’t miss a dose or stop using the medicine entirely if this happens. These effects tend to wear off soon.
When using antidepressants, you should never miss a dose. If you do, don’t try to make up for it by taking two doses the next time – it will only worsen the problem. In case you overdose accidentally, talk to your health care professional as soon as possible.
If you don’t see any results even after four weeks of using the antidepressant, speak to your mental health specialist. They may change the medicine or increase your dose.
Usually, patients are given an antidepressant course for up to six months. However, those with recurrent depression have to use these meds indefinitely.
Side Effects of Antidepressants
If you are on antidepressants, you might ask: Are antidepressants safe? The truth is, different users will experience different side effects that depend on the drug and dosage. It might also depend on whether they are new to the medication or not.
The risk of antidepressant side effects is more when the individual is taking another medication alongside, as one drug might increase the side effects of the other. However, they are usually mild and go away on their own. If they persist, speak to your doctor.
The side effects also differ depending on the kind of antidepressant you’re taking. For example, SSRIs are drugs that work on a single neurotransmitter, namely serotonin, and they can have the following side effects:
- Dry mouth
- Low sex drive and erectile dysfunction
SNRIs are antidepressants that prevent the brain cells from reabsorbing norepinephrine and serotonin. Their side effects include:
- Loss of appetite
- Sexual problems
TCAs have a similar effect as SNRIs, but they also decrease acetylcholine’s impact. Although helpful, such meds are only given if the previously mentioned classes don’t work, as TCAs can have certain serious side effects. Such as:
- Blurred vision
- Trouble urinating
- Increased heart rate
- Memory issues
Severe Side Effects
While dizziness and nausea are minor side effects of antidepressants, they can be more problematic for older people. Some drugs may also increase the intensity of antidepressant side effects on interaction.
In addition, a small number of people have also experienced heart problems and liver damage as side effects. However, these were rare side effects that are not common.
Are there Any Withdrawal Symptoms?
Just like starting antidepressants, leaving them also follows a doctor-prescribed medical course. You should not abruptly stop taking your depression medicines, especially if you have been taking them for a while.
Always talk to your doctor beforehand. If you stop using the meds too quickly, your condition might recur. Likewise, if you quit before four weeks, you’re not giving the meds enough chance to show any noticeable results.
As for withdrawal symptoms, they go away in a few days or weeks. However, for some people, they may last longer, even months. Some common symptoms of withdrawal are:
- Feeling ‘electric shocks’ in your head
- Gastric problems
- Anxiety and confusion
Can Antidepressants Prevent Relapses?
Antidepressants are taken daily to relieve the symptoms of depression in the first two weeks or so. Then, after successfully making the symptoms go away, they are continued for about four to nine months, or even longer.
The continuation of drugs is necessary to prevent the symptoms of depression from coming back. The duration following the main treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and their likelihood of returning.
Relapse prevention is beneficial for people who have had relapses in the past and want to be extra careful this time around or those who suffer from chronic depression.
Research shows that the use of SSRIs for a year can lower the risk of relapses in adults. It suggests that taking an antidepressant over a more extended period can prevent relapses, but they are not entirely preventable.
Mental health is a complex discipline, and the current research is too limited to explain the effectiveness of antidepressants or their mechanism of action. However, antidepressants can help in certain cases.
When using them for the first time, monitor the changes in your body. If you experience anything unusual, speak to a medical professional. Most importantly, give the medication time to work and never miss a dose.