Most discussions of the dangers of prescription drug abuse focus on painkillers that contain opioids and anti-anxiety medications that contain benzodiazepines. But what about antidepressants? Do people commonly abuse these medications? Is antidepressant abuse dangerous? What are the potential negative effects of taking antidepressants when not depressed?
How Do Antidepressants Work?
Most antidepressants work by influencing how the central nervous system produces, transmits, and reabsorbs chemicals known as neurotransmitters. The following are three common types of antidepressants:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – This category includes medications that are marketed under the brand names Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, and Lexapro.
- Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) – Examples of SNRIs include Effexor, Pristiq, and Cymbalta.
- Norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs) – Currently, the sole antidepressant in this category is Wellbutrin.
As their category names indicate, these antidepressants affect the following neurotransmitters, which are associated with mood, motivation, the sleep/wake cycle, pleasure, the body’s “fight or flight” response, and related characteristics:
Neurotransmitters convey messages throughout the central nervous system. Typically, when a neuron interacts with a neurotransmitter, it absorbs a bit of the neurotransmitter. The medications listed above prevent neurons from absorbing the neurotransmitters. This increases the level of neurotransmitters in a person’s system, which can lead to an easing of depression symptoms.
Now that we’ve established how many common antidepressants work, we can turn our focus to the potential effects of taking antidepressants when not depressed.
Effects of Taking Antidepressants When Not Depressed
As is the case with most prescription medications, antidepressants are typically abused for one of two reasons:
- To self-medicate
- To achieve a recreational high
Many people mistakenly believe that, since prescription medications are used by doctors to treat legitimate medical concerns, they are safer than other commonly abused substances. While it’s true that antidepressants and other prescription medications can be used with minimal risk when the person who is taking them follows their doctor’s instructions, every drug can cause unpleasant side effects. And when a person exceeds the recommended frequency and dosage levels of any medication, they can expose themselves to considerable harm.
According to a 2014 article in the journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, most people who abuse antidepressants have a substance use disorder (addiction) and a co-occurring mood disorder. The typical reason people abuse antidepressants, this article reports, is because they are attempting to experience “a psychostimulant-like effect.”
In the case of SSRIs, SNRIs, and related medications, the effects of taking antidepressants when not depressed can include developing a condition known as serotonin syndrome. Symptoms of this condition include the following:
- Racing heart rate
- Impaired coordination
- Muscle rigidity
- Twitches, tremors, or spasms
- Severe headaches
- Excessive sweating
In some cases, serotonin syndrome can be life-threatening. Severe effects can include the following:
- Elevated body temperature
- Loss of consciousness
Initial symptoms of serotonin syndrome can begin to occur within 24 hours after a person has begun to take a dangerous amount of an SSRI, an SNRI, or another antidepressant that impacts serotonin levels.
In mild or moderate cases, ending the use of these medications may often resolve the problem. In extreme circumstances, though, a person may need to be hospitalized to determine if they have incurred serious organ damage or other significant negative effects of taking antidepressants when not depressed.
Treatment Options for Antidepressant Abuse
Even if a person hasn’t experienced lasting physical damage due to antidepressant abuse, they may still need professional care to help them overcome the urge to misuse these or other prescription drugs.
Depending on the nature and severity of a person’s struggles with antidepressant abuse, their treatment may include residential care, partial hospitalization, and/or intensive outpatient programming.
Within these programs, treatment for antidepressant abuse and prescription drug addiction often includes several types of therapy. Therapy sessions can help people understand the issues and influences that may have contributed to their substance abuse in the first place. These sessions can also help participants develop the skills and strategies that will allow them to respond to conflicts and other stressors without abusing antidepressants or any other substances.
In addition to individual and group therapy, people who are receiving care for antidepressant abuse may also benefit from services such as the following:
- Psychiatric care
- Alpha-Stim treatment
- Biosound therapy
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
- Red light therapy
- Genetic testing
- Holistic therapy
If the person has been abusing antidepressants in a misguided attempt to self-medicate the symptoms of anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or another mental health concern, it is important to find a treatment provider such as Arbor Wellness that offers dual diagnosis services. Dual diagnosis is the clinical term that refers to the simultaneous presence of a substance use disorder (addiction) and a co-occurring mental health concern.
Begin Treatment in Nashville, TN
If you or someone that you care about has been struggling with depression, antidepressant abuse, prescription drug addiction, or other mental and behavioral health concerns, the Arbor Wellness team is here to help. Our treatment center in Nashville, Tennessee, offers personalized services and comprehensive support within a safe and welcoming environment. The dedicated professionals who provide care at our facility can help you or your loved one find the path toward improved health and long-term recovery. Give us a call or visit our admissions page today to learn more.