According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 13% of American adults use antidepressants. They’re beneficial in helping people struggling with depression alleviate the symptoms, but many people considering the prospect of using these drugs worry about feeling emotionally numb when taking them.
This brings up a conflict — people take antidepressants to feel better than they have been. And while, they do make it easier to feel happy when they’re working right, they can fundamentally change a person’s ability to feel things as strongly as they would without the influence of medication.
In this piece, we’ll explore antidepressants, why they make users feel flat and whether this is a compelling reason for someone who’s feeling positive effects from these drugs to stop taking them.
What Do We Mean by Feeling Flat?
The technical term for the most commonly used antidepressant medications is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. This refers to the drugs’ effects — they cause the brain to produce more serotonin, a chemical that makes a person feel happier.
In producing these feelings, however, antidepressants dull the intensity of all emotions. This is what’s meant by feeling flat or emotionless. Serotonin levels are slightly higher constantly, regardless of external stimulus, but the medication removes highs that go beyond this new baseline. Additionally, any lows are less low.
Craig Miller, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, describes taking antidepressants and feeling blah: “You might not cry at a movie’s happy ending or laugh with the same gusto. Or you might feel apathetic and not get the same kick out of doing things you enjoy, like playing golf or painting.”
This can be disconcerting for anyone who isn’t used to this sensation, or lack thereof, but is it better to feel this way than actively struggle with depression?
Is Feeling Flat Better Than the Alternative?
People often ask: if antidepressants cause the user to feel emotionally numb, why aren’t there alternative medications?
The answer may have something to do with the fact that SSRIs have had such a positive effect for so many people. Those who use them to treat the effects of depression get results at a high rate. One study compared results between a group of people who took a placebo versus a group who took SSRIs, and the latter reported around a 20% improvement in symptoms over the control group.
This is likely why many people see the flatness that antidepressants cause as the lesser of two evils. Untreated depression can get more and more severe, and the longer it persists, the more likely suicide is.
Don’t Make Any Sudden Decisions
Sometimes, when a person doesn’t like the way a medication is making them feel, they choose to stop taking it. This is never a good idea, but when the drug in question is aimed at treating the symptoms of a serious mental health condition, it can be extremely dangerous.
Like any medication that fundamentally changes the way the brain functions, the immediate removal of an antidepressant’s influence can lead to some severe withdrawal symptoms.
Antidepressant withdrawal often comes with a relapse of acute depression. When antidepressants have been used for a long time before a person stops, the recurrence may come with stronger symptoms because they’ve become dependent on the influence of the chemicals.
Here are a few options to consider if you’re taking antidepressants and don’t want to continue feeling emotionally numb, or if you’re unsure about starting them for the same reason:
If You’re Currently Taking an Antidepressant, Talk To Your Doctor
Because of the unpredictability of depression and mental illness in general, it’s important that you make any decisions about seeking a new path of treatment with your primary physician.
They’ll likely be able to help you work on a plan to get off your antidepressant in a safer way than just stopping abruptly. Tapering is thought to be the least risky way to quit using SSRIs.
Try a Different Medication
There are a variety of antidepressants on the market, and for the most part, they all have slight differences. Many people have to try several different antidepressants before they find one that feels right for them.
It’s also worth considering that occasionally that flat feeling is something you may feel when you start using a new antidepressant, but it may go away you as grow accustomed to the influence of the medication. This is one of the reasons doctors encourage patients to keep using a specific drug for at least a few months, even if an individual doesn’t feel like it will be a long-term solution.
Consider an Alternative Treatment Option
Whether you’re taking an antidepressant and you’d like to feel like yourself again or you’re unsure if starting one is right for you, there are options other than medications that may work. The fact is, no solution is going to work for everyone, which is why the mental health services industry has developed different therapies and treatment options for people struggling with depression.
For many people, conventional talk therapy is effective in treating depression. It helps the patient explore the underlying causes of the way they’re feeling, rather than just treating the outcome with medication.
Other options include integration with nature, mindfulness and meditation and advanced approaches that use neuroscience to rewire the brain.
A word of caution, though: You shouldn’t try to change your treatment plan without supervision and input from your doctor.
The Importance of Diverse Treatment Options at FHE Health
At FHE Health, we understand that because of the emotional blunting effect of antidepressants, these drugs aren’t for everyone. Severe depression is complex and as difficult to treat as it is to understand. In order to find the approach that works for you, you may have to try different combinations of treatment methods.
That’s where FHE Health comes in. We’re the experts in mental health care, and we can help you find a treatment for depression that does its job without making you feel less than your best. In severe cases, our residential program can be a stable place for you or a loved one to be safe while our team dials in on the right treatment, medication-based or not.