Antidepressants: Not A Life Sentence
Many people are surprised to learn that I took antidepressants in my early 20s. On the surface, I looked like I had it all together. I was valedictorian of my graduating class, I had an active social life, and I was pursuing my PhD in psychology.
But inside I was screaming.
I’d spent most of my youth desperately seeking male approval. I was also an achievement junkie who was obsessed with getting good grades. I’d struggled with bouts of anxiety and sadness for as long as I could remember.
When my relationships with my boyfriend and my best friend started going downhill, I decided to see a therapist. The therapist referred me to a doctor, because she thought I might be suffering from dysthymia (a mild but long-term form of depression). The doctor spoke with me for 10 to 15 minutes, gave me a 10-item questionnaire and sent me home with a trial pack of Paxil (the latest and greatest new antidepressant back in 1999).
That 20-minute appointment led to me being on antidepressants for the next six years.
I spent most of those six years scouring the Internet and bookstores for someone who would help me get off the medication. At one point, tired of suffering from the side effects of the drugs, I told my doctor that I was interested in lowering my dose. She replied with a story that doctors around the world tell their patients every day:
“Taking antidepressants is like a diabetic taking insulin. The insulin helps the diabetic with their problem, so why stop taking it? If you have a chemical imbalance in your brain and the antidepressants are helping to regulate that, then often it doesn’t make sense to stop taking the medication.”
The problem with this story is that, in many cases, it’s false.
Don’t get me wrong — I am not completely against the use of antidepressants. Are antidepressants necessary in some cases? Yes. Do I believe these drugs are being over-prescribed? Absolutely.
Please know that there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re currently taking antidepressants. There are roughly 118 million prescriptions for antidepressants written in the United States every year, and you might need the medication to get through a rough patch in your life.
But I also want you to know that just because you’re taking antidepressants right now, that doesn’t mean you’ve been sentenced to life without parole.
There are alternatives to antidepressants. And in many cases, these alternatives work. You have a right to know that there is another way.
Here are three reasons.
Serotonin Is Only Part Of The Story
Much credence has been given to the idea that anxiety and depression are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. While current research suggests that serotonin (and other neurotransmitters) play a role in regulating our mood, equating mental illness with physical illness is premature, misleading and horribly disempowering.
Instead of feeling like you have any say in the matter, you throw in the towel and decide there’s nothing you can do about your mental health because it’s all chemical. So you stop going to therapy, you stay in your dysfunctional relationship or you forgo that yoga class. You tell yourself there’s no point bothering with any alternative approaches because there’s nothing you can do to change your brain. Unfortunately, this point of view closes the door on a huge number of resources that could be beneficial to your well-being.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the “serotonin deficiency” idea is still much more of a hypothesis than a fact. As Dr. Joseph Glenmullen points out in his books “Prozac Backlash” and “The Antidepressant Solution,” a serotonin deficiency for depression has not been conclusively found.
So before you lock yourself into a serotonin-deficient cell and throw away the key, realize that there are other options.
Talk It Out
Many studies have found that psychotherapy is as effective (or even more effective) than taking antidepressants, particularly for mild to moderate depression and anxiety. When it comes to the long-term effectiveness of psychotherapy versus antidepressants, several studies have shown that people who go through psychotherapy are less likely to have a relapse of their depression or anxiety than people who only take antidepressants.
Why? Because psychotherapy helps you develop a resistance to future bouts of depression and anxiety. It arms you with tools to keep your symptoms at bay. Antidepressants, on the other hand, simply mask your issues, which means these problems can easily return in the future when you go off the drugs.
The moral? If you’d like to stay off antidepressants over the long-term, find a therapist who resonates with you. Visit the Psychology Today Directory of Therapists to find a counselor near you.
Access Your Inner Pharmacy
Our bodies and minds are intimately connected. In fact, you have a buffet of brain-healthy neurotransmitters at your fingertips — if you’re willing to put in the work to access them.
A growing body of research suggests that mind-body practices like yoga and meditation are highly effective at reducing anxiety and depression. For example, researchers at Boston University recently found that yoga increases GABA levels — a neurotransmitter that is often low in people with anxiety and mood disorders. Research from Harvard Medical School also suggests that meditation might even change the physical structure of our brain.
The saying “It works if you work it” definitely applies here. A daily yoga or meditation practice might require more time than popping a pill, but the results are well worth it.
Where To Start
If you’re interested in going off of antidepressants, start small. Always consult your doctor, and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. Find a therapist and commit to implementing some healthy mind-body habits.
After following this approach for several years, I appealed my life sentence and finally managed to kick my antidepressant habit for good. With a bit of hard work, courage and determination, I know that you can do the same.
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, researcher, and yoga teacher who helps people create a life they love. Her book is “The Antidepressant Antidote.”
Photo credit: Luc de Leeuw