Are Antidepressants Addictive?
Last Updated: August 23, 2023
Antidepressants are not known to be addictive. However, they can cause physical dependence and withdrawal if you stop them suddenly.
Antidepressants are a commonly prescribed drug class, with more than 48 million Americans receiving an antidepressant prescription in 2019 alone. Because they are so important to maintaining mental health and must be taken on a daily basis, some people may wonder whether or not antidepressants are addictive. While they are not addictive, your body can grow to rely on them over time, leading to temporary and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop.
What Are Antidepressants?
Antidepressants are medications that many people assume, based on the name, are used only to treat depression. However, this is not the case. Antidepressants can be used to also treat anxiety, pain, migraines, tobacco addiction, insomnia and menopausal symptoms. They are a diverse class of drugs with multiple effects on the human body, making them very useful for many conditions.
More than 48 million Americans received an antidepressant prescription in 2019, and more than 240 million total antidepressant prescriptions were dispensed that year. The most common antidepressants are:
- Sertraline (Zoloft), an SSRI representing 15.4% of all antidepressant prescriptions
- Escitalopram (Lexapro), an SSRI representing 11.4% of all antidepressant prescriptions
- Fluoxetine (Prozac), an SSRI representing 11.3% of all antidepressant prescriptions
- Bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban), an atypical antidepressant representing 10.7% of all antidepressant prescriptions
- Trazodone, an atypical antidepressant representing 10% of all antidepressant prescriptions
- Duloxetine (Cymbalta), an SNRI representing almost 10% of all antidepressant prescriptions
Types of Antidepressants
Several types of antidepressants exist:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which include sertraline (Zoloft) and escitalopram (Lexapro)
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor)
- Atypical antidepressants, which include bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban), trazodone and mirtazapine (Remeron)
- Tricyclic antidepressants, which include amitriptyline
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which include selegiline
- Serotonin modulators, which include vilazodone (Viibryd)
- NMDA antagonists, which include esketamine (Spravato)
Scientists are not sure exactly how antidepressants work to treat most health conditions they are used for, only that they are effective. Their exact mechanism is under debate. Until recently, scientists assumed that the ability of most antidepressants to increase brain levels of serotonin in the brain was responsible for their antidepressant effects. However, new research has called this assumption into question, and scientists are no longer sure about the mechanism by which antidepressants work so well at treating depression either.
Are Antidepressants Addictive?
Antidepressants are not addictive in that they do not cause euphoria or a high. For this reason, they are not typically drugs of abuse and are not controlled substances.
However, it is still possible to become physically dependent on antidepressants.
Antidepressant Dependence vs. Addiction
Physical dependence on an antidepressant is different from addiction. In addiction, a person compulsively uses a substance despite harmful consequences of its use. This is not the case with antidepressants, which do not generate the euphoria that would typically lead to compulsive use.
Instead, it is possible to become physically dependent on an antidepressant. In physical dependence, your body becomes used to the presence of the drug and begins to rely on it. For this reason, if you suddenly stop the drug, you may experience antidepressant withdrawal symptoms. Many addictive substances also cause physical dependence, but physical dependence alone does not make something addictive.
Withdrawal symptoms can occur if you suddenly stop taking an antidepressant on which you have become physically dependent. Common antidepressant withdrawal symptoms include:
- Mood problems: agitation, anxiety, nervousness, confusion, depression
- Gastrointestinal problems: loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea
- Physical problems: balance issues, coordination problems, dizziness, dry mouth, twitching, tremors
- Sleep problems: insomnia, nightmares, sleepiness
Although rare, some people may abuse their antidepressants, meaning that they take their antidepressants incorrectly for a non-medical purpose. Abuse is different from addiction, in that abuse typically is not compulsive, and a person can stop abusing a substance much more easily than they can overcome an addiction to it.
Antidepressants and Alcohol
It is best to avoid alcohol while taking antidepressants, especially if you take them for a mental health problem like depression. Substance abuse is common in those with mental health problems, and millions of Americans struggle with both. Some people rely on alcohol to treat their symptoms of low mood, further increasing the risk for mistreated mental health problems and alcohol addiction. Further, it is possible that combining an antidepressant with alcohol can increase the risk of overdose.
What Happens if Someone Overdoses on Antidepressants?
It is possible to overdose on antidepressants by taking too high a dose. However, overdose symptoms can vary widely depending on the type of antidepressant a person took:
- SSRI overdose symptoms: drowsiness, tremor, and serotonin syndrome, which is characterized by fever, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, sweating, loss of coordination and twitching or uncoordinated muscles
- SNRI overdose symptoms: fast heart rate, high blood pressure, fluctuations in consciousness, serotonin syndrome
- Bupropion overdose symptoms: fast heartbeat, high blood pressure, seizures
- Mirtazapine overdose symptoms: disorientation, drowsiness, memory problems, slow irregular heartbeat
- Trazodone overdose symptoms: Irregular heartbeat, slowed or stopped breathing, an erection that will not go away
- Vilazodone overdose symptoms: Drowsiness, vomiting, fast heartbeat, serotonin syndrome
- Tricyclic antidepressant overdose symptoms: Large pupils, constipation, fast heartbeat, low blood pressure, sedation, seizures
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitor overdose symptoms: Extremely high blood pressure, serotonin syndrome
- Esketamine overdose symptoms: Sedation, dissociation from reality
Other FAQs About Antidepressants
How Long Does It Take for Antidepressants to Work?
Antidepressants can be prescribed for many reasons, including depression, anxiety and even pain. The onset can vary depending on the antidepressant, the reason for taking the drug and even your physiology. Antidepressants rarely start to work immediately, however. For mental health conditions like depression, they can take two weeks or longer to start working.
Who Can Prescribe Antidepressants?
Antidepressants are not controlled substances, so any medical provider can prescribe them. This includes physicians, nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants.
How Do Antidepressants Make You Feel?
Many different types of antidepressants exist, and there is no one way that antidepressants as a whole can make you feel. However, when taken for depression or anxiety, they can work to slowly improve your mood, making you feel less depressed and anxious.
What Happens if a Normal Person Takes Antidepressants?
A person without a medical reason for taking antidepressants is unlikely to benefit from them. Antidepressants are not a drug of abuse and cannot be used to get high. Because antidepressants can be used for many reasons, including as pain relievers for nerve pain and migraines, a person without depression or anxiety may still benefit from antidepressants that their doctor prescribes.
Using Antidepressants for Drug or Alcohol Addiction
Antidepressants themselves do not treat drug or alcohol addiction. However, depression and anxiety are common in those with substance abuse issues, and about 8.5 million Americans suffer from both a substance abuse issue and a mental health problem. For this reason, antidepressants may be used in people who struggle with substances or are recovering from substance use to assist in the healing process.
Drug and alcohol addiction can be difficult to overcome, but you are not alone. Our caring experts at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper are with you every step of the way when it comes to treating your addiction and addressing co-occurring mental health disorders that may benefit from antidepressants. Don’t wait: contact us today to see how we can help.
Our Recovery Advocates are ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment and help you start your recovery.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.