And for some people, antidepressant withdrawal may be too much to bear, meaning relapse is likely. Understanding how the antidepressant timeline works can give you an idea of what to expect so you’ll know whether some form of detox treatment help is needed.
What Are Antidepressants and How Do They Work?
After anxiety-based disorders, depression is the second most common form of mental illness in the United States. Like most mental health disorders, depression develops out of chemical or neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain and central nervous system (CNS). Any number of causes can trigger chemical imbalance, like heredity, stress, underlying medical problems, and certain medication.
Antidepressants are designed to restore chemical balance in the brain and CNS, though different types of antidepressants do this in different ways.
Your neurotransmitter levels affect any bodily functions controlled by the central nervous system so even slight imbalances can have ripple effects on your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. With antidepressant withdrawal, the uncomfortable symptoms that develop stem from the changes in neurotransmitter levels that result as the body gets used to functioning without the drug. Here are just a few of the many physical processes that neurotransmitters affect:
- Your heartbeat
- Your psychological well-being
- Hormone balance
- Glucose-energy metabolism processes
More specifically, antidepressants act on the three main neurotransmitters that regulate emotions and cognition: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Different types of antidepressants interact with these three neurotransmitters in different ways. Likewise, antidepressant withdrawal timelines will vary depending on how each antidepressant works.
How Do Withdrawal Timelines Work?
Withdrawal effects can vary greatly depending on the person and type of antidepressant. Dosage amounts taken and the length of time you’re on the drug also influences how your withdrawal period will play out. Likewise, a drug’s half-life can vary for the same reasons.
Drug half-life refers to the amount of time it takes for half the drug to leave your system. With single dosage amounts, the time it takes can vary from a few hours to a few days.
As a general rule, antidepressant drugs with short half-lives cause more intense or severe withdrawal effects whereas those with long half-lives produce less severe withdrawal effects. This means you’re likely to experience antidepressant withdrawal relief sooner if you’re coming off a drug with a short half-life. Any drug that interacts with the brain’s chemical system on an ongoing basis can alter the brain’s chemical makeup. When you stop taking a drug, your brain and body are left to pick up where the drug leaves off. This means any bodily functions that were affected will have to “re-learn” how to function normally without the drug. In effect, your body will go through an antidepressant withdrawal syndrome where symptoms of withdrawal will persist until things return to normal. While different antidepressants may cause different withdrawal symptoms, here are some of the more common symptoms experienced when stopping antidepressant drugs:
Antidepressant Withdrawal Symptoms
Any drug that interacts with the brain’s chemical system on an ongoing basis can alter the brain’s chemical makeup. When you stop taking a drug, your brain and body are left to pick up where the drug leaves off. This means any bodily functions that were affected will have to “re-learn” how to function normally without the drug. In effect, your body will go through an antidepressant withdrawal syndrome where symptoms of withdrawal will persist until things return to normal.
While different antidepressants may cause different withdrawal symptoms, here are some of the more common symptoms experienced when stopping antidepressant drugs:
Antidepressant Withdrawal Timelines
Here’s a breakdown of withdrawal timelines for the most commonly used antidepressants:
- Lexapro: Half-life = 27 to 32 hours. The time it takes to completely leave your system = 6 days.
- Prozac: Half-life = 4 to 6 days. The time it takes to completely leave your system = 25 days.
- Cymbalta: Half-life = 12 hours. The time it takes to completely leave your system = 2.5 days.
- Effexor: Half-life = 5 hours. The time it takes to completely leave your system = 1 day.
- Celexa: Half-life = 36 hours. The time it takes to completely leave your system = 7.3 days.
- Zoloft: Half-life = 26 hours. The time it takes to completely leave your system = 5.4 days.
With most antidepressants, you can expect to start experiencing withdrawal symptoms once 90 percent of the drug has left your system. On average, the withdrawal period can take anywhere from one to two weeks depending on the drug you’re taking, the dosage amount you normally take, and how long you’ve been taking it.
Antidepressant Abuse and Addiction Risks
Unlike highly addictive drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, antidepressants aren’t strong enough to warp the brain’s chemical system to the point where they overpower a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. However, antidepressants still have a potential for abuse, particularly for individuals with mood disorders or a history of substance use disorder.
When antidepressant abuse or addiction enters the picture, stopping the drug becomes much more difficult. In effect, the antidepressant withdrawal syndrome becomes more intense with more severe symptoms. The time it takes for withdrawal to end also takes longer.
A post-acute withdrawal period is something else to watch for when coming off an addiction problem. Also known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome or PAWS, this period begins after the more intense withdrawal symptoms end. PAWS symptoms tend to be more psychological than physical since the brain’s chemical system takes the brunt of the damage with compulsive drug use.
Here are a few PAWS symptoms to watch for:
- Impaired judgment and decision-making
- Anxiety or panic
- Drug cravings
- Memory problems
- Hyper-sensitive to stress
- Sleep problems
- Inability to experience joy or feel content
When to Consider Getting Detox Treatment Help
It’s always best to consult with your doctor if you’re considering going off antidepressant medication. Stopping it abruptly opens the floodgates for depression to return and some people may experience severe reactions, such as delirium, psychosis, and suicidal tendencies. Otherwise, if you’ve tried to cut back on your dosage amounts with little to no success, it may be time to consider getting detox treatment help.
Even in cases where a person does reach the point of antidepressant withdrawal relief, subtle aftereffects, such as feelings of sadness and anxiousness can leave you susceptible to relapse. Antidepressant detox treatment programs provide the level of monitoring, emotional support, and guidance needed to overcome an antidepressant abuse problem. Detox programs also offer counseling and therapy, which can help you address the underlying issues that aggravate feelings of depression.
Ultimately, stopping antidepressants is like stopping any other type of brain-altering drug, meaning, if you can’t bear the withdrawal effects, it’s best to get professional treatment help.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse, Impacts of Drugs on Neurotransmission
- Harvard Health, Going Off Antidepressants
- Substance Use Disorder Rehabilitation, Abuse and Misuse of Antidepressants
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.