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Stopping Antidepressants: Is it Withdrawal?

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Your doctor prescribed an antidepressant to help boost your mood or ease your anxiety. But, as soon as you feel better, you figure you no longer need the medicine. So you stop taking it.

And suddenly, you feel like you have the flu, or a stomach bug, or perhaps you find it hard to think and have disturbing thoughts.

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You’re probably having discontinuation symptoms.

When antidepressants that affect the brain chemical serotonin are suddenly stopped, the body may respond with physical and emotional symptoms caused by the sudden absence of increased serotonin levels that occur while taking the antidepressant. These symptoms are not technically the same thing as physical "withdrawal" from a drug. Physiological withdrawal happens when someone is taking a drug that can be addictive. This leads to craving and drug-seeking behavior. Antidepressants are not addictive or habit-forming. Unlike drug withdrawal, antidepressant discontinuation effects are not related to addiction but can reflect physiological consequences of stopping a drug, just as when someone with diabetes stops insulin. About one in five people who take an antidepressant for six or more weeks may experience discontinuation symptoms if they suddenly stop taking the medicine. Tapering down your medication gradually under the supervision of your health care provider can help avoid or minimize symptoms. However, it is still possible in those who decrease their dose too rapidly or sometimes even slowly quit the medicine.

Your doctor may diagnose you with antidepressant discontinuation symptoms if:

  • You suddenly develop symptoms days after stopping an antidepressant.
  • Symptoms rapidly go away when you start taking the antidepressant again.

What Causes Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome?

There's no way to predict if you will have discontinuation symptoms after quitting an antidepressant. Scientists are not exactly sure why some people develop antidepressant discontinuation syndrome while others do not.

Antidepressants help restore the normal function of naturally occurring, mood-regulating substances in the brain, called neurotransmitters, including serotonin and norepinephrine. Some mental health experts theorize that abruptly stopping an antidepressant simply does not give your brain time to adjust to the rapid changes.

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