Behavioral Health Consultant, Trainer and EAP Manager

Seattle, Washington

Are Antidepressants Addictive?

Question:

My doctor has advised me start taking an antidepressant. She tells me they are not addictive but I don’t understand how they can’t be. If you rely on a drug to be happy, isn’t that a form of dependence?

 

Answer:

You may choose to go without a medication for any number of reasons, but this should not be one of them. I hope that some points here can lay the concern to rest.

A minority of those who take an antidepressant do take it indefinitely, but this is always a free choice, usually for one who has had recurrent or chronic depression. For most others, it is taken for roughly eight to twelve months. This way, the chances of remaining depression-free are better. I advise people that they can use this window of time while on medication to improve the odds even further. By learning a bit about your own risk factors and in putting some self-care habits in place, you can assure yourself that you are coming out with a higher level of emotional resilience and a smaller chance you will need medication ever again.

Now we’ll get a little technical. The drugs that are addictive have several characteristics that set them fully apart from the antidepressants:

1.  The tolerance effect. This is when you must gradually take more of the same drug to experience the same results. As addiction becomes severe, say with narcotics or alcohol, it is no longer taken for pleasure, but simply to avoid pain.
2.  Craving. I myself crave coffee in the morning. As much as anyone might appreciate the effect of an antidepressant, “craving” is not a word used to describe the motivation in taking it.
3.  Loss of control. Most of us are familiar with how an addict might take a desired substance in spite of efforts not to. Getting off the wagon is as easy as falling. Those on antidepressants are able to stop when they choose, and do not continue if it goes against their better judgment.
4.  Addictive chemicals (at times behaviors too, such as gambling) induce a euphoric effect of some kind. Antidepressants on the other hand do not. They have no street value.
5.  Several other features might be included depending on who you ask, such as denial, secrecy, accelerating use despite mounting consequences and reorganizing one’s life to facilitate continued access to the drug.

Here is where confusion comes in: It is true that most of the antidepressants have one thing in common with addictive drugs – the withdrawal effect. If you stop “cold turkey” you are likely to experience unpleasant physical consequences. With some of the other substances, occasionally with alcohol for instance, this can be lethal. Among the antidepressants, Paxil (paroxetine) and Effexor (venlafaxine) are noted for the potential withdrawal effects. These occur in part because the chemical is eliminated from the body quickly, while the other drugs take longer, making for a sort of a natural tapering effect. The withdrawal can be highly uncomfortable – nausea, dizziness, agitation and many other unpleasant symptoms. Another consequence of going off any of the antidepressants too quickly is that you are at higher risk for relapsing into depression.

All of this is avoidable however if you follow this advice: If you choose to take an antidepressant, it should be in your system for a long-enough period of time, and you must taper off the medication gradually, in a planned way. Your prescriber should give you the uncomplicated specifics. The process simply needs due attention, not undue fear.

27 thoughts on “Are Antidepressants Addictive?

  1. I have a friend who now visits doctors and gets many prescriptions. He then mixes his medication to find the desired effect. He has suicidal thoughts, dizzy spells, loss of function and loss of interest. He also makes rash decisions and is unable to communicate wile taking his prescriptions. It has caused truouble with his finances, family and health. When not on medication he is a great guy and very smart. As soon as something dosn’t go his way he starts taking medication. He says he needs it and can’t stop taking it. He says its hurting him. He says he dosn’t know how to stop. This sounds like addiction.

    • I’m sorry about your friend, Mike. It sure could be addiction, and at the very least it’s bad, bad misuse. But I doubt that it is merely antidepressant medications that are giving him the kind of problems you’re describing.

  2. Hello Tom,
    I simply do not know where to begin. I have never been to a site like this, seeked any form of help, or posted on a blog in my life. i am a professional by trade, and a 52 year old married father of two kids who have moved on to live their lives succesfully.
    It’s just my wife and I now, and we met at age 15. This year is our 30th year married. 37 years as friends and companions.
    I have made some terrible decisions throughout my marriage with finances, but my main problem is that of an addictive compulsive personality.
    Oh my god! I am the worst. I am so screwed up!!
    I could write the most incredinle book ever written when it comes to “the private life of a controlled alcoholic, gambler an philanderer”.
    I am so ashamed of myself I could just die.
    I have been hiding from myself for so many years. I suffer from deep depression and hide it well. I am the most controlled addicted gambler you have ever met, and worst of all, I am a sexaholic.
    It pains me to even write the words, as I am reading the words.
    My addictions have cost me nearly everyrthing in the past, but soon will cost me everything now.
    For years my wife has not pleased me intimately, and I have “found it”, elsewhere. I became addicted to massages and escorts. No strings, and gorgeous woman.
    I gamble and see an escort several times a month, and spend more money than I have of course. I have never been caught. Only once did I almost get caught. I wish I had.

    My focus is mainly on work, but then the addictions set in, and game over….there goes the rest of my day. Searching for a woman, or heading for a casino.
    I sometimes win big, but mostly lose. And, I mostly find a date, but it leaves me unfullfilled.
    I absolutely do not know where to begin to fix my life.

    Now, my wife and i are not talking due to some things I saidf to her the other night.
    She promises sex, then says she is too tired. I finally got fed up, and spilled my guts telling her the way I feel about her not stepping up and taking care of me sexually. Fell upon deaf ears. She is only with me for the little security I give her. She does not love me, or atleast does not show it.

    I just do not know what to do except set her free. I am the worst. She deserves so uch better. I have ruined her life.
    When is this going to finally end?
    I feel like i am all alone, and the only broken human out here.
    I thank you for letting me spill my guts on here.
    Please feel free to delete this.
    As hard as all this is to believe, it is sadly 100% truth.

    • Thank you for writing, Dan. There is no way I’d delete your post, though I do take out last names. You have taken a step, and another step eventually is inevitable. I just wonder whether it will be planned and intentional. I’ll suggest to you that to be terrified of some disclosure and of asking for help does not mean you have to be unwilling.

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