Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications work to alter your brain chemistry and support a more balanced mood state. Since psychotropic medication changes your brain chemistry and may also come with side effects, deciding to take medication should not to be made lightly. It’s helpful to understand how the medication you are prescribed works and what to expect when discontinuing it before deciding to stop. It’s always advised to be under the supervision of a doctor who can ensure your safety and help minimize any side effects before discontinuing psychotropic meds.
(Please skip to the last section of this article if you would like to consider alternatives to psychotropic medication and discuss your options with your prescribing doctor and other healthcare professionals.)
Why Take Psychotropic Medications?
If you are struggling with depression or anxiety in a way that is significantly affecting your life, your doctor may recommend anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications. Medications are also sometimes prescribed to alleviate symptoms, making therapy more helpful and useful. When feeling burdened by emotional overwhelm, at times it can be impossible to participate in your therapy in a way that promotes the change you need or motivate yourself to follow up on homework in-between sessions. When this is the case, your doctor may recommend psychotropic medication to help you engage in therapy in the way that you need to give you some relief from the symptoms you are experiencing.
Current-day research supports the use of both psychotropic medication and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to treat diagnoses associated with depression. Medication may help you be fully involved and benefit from therapy. CBT will help you make the chemical changes in your brain for the long-term so that if you decide to taper off your medication at some point, you can maintain the brain changes you have worked to achieve in therapy.
In other cases, psychotropic medications may be prescribed to address chronic forms of depression and anxiety. Some people suffer from depression and/or anxiety for years. Despite trying many approaches, they struggle with symptoms on a daily basis. In these cases, medication may be a helpful option. Some people choose to maintain their medication regimen for a lifetime because when the medication is withdrawn, symptoms quickly return. Sometimes, even when engaging in all the behaviors necessary to support your health, the chemical components of the disorder you suffer from are just too strong, and medication is an essential part of your health routine. Each person is unique, as are the type, dosage and length of time prescribed medication works best.
It is very important to note that psychotropic medications may be contraindicated for some anxiety disorders and interfere with treatment and prognosis. Evidence-based treatments for anxiety require that you are able to experience the anxiety to its fullest extent in therapy in order for the treatment to be effective. If you are taking medication to decrease your experience of anxiety, in some case, this may interfere with your therapy. Talk to your treatment provider so that you can collaborate about the most effective treatment for you.
How Do Psychotropic Medications Work?
Different anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication work in distinctive ways. Some medications stimulate the brain to produce more neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain that regulate mood and other processes). Some help the brain by blocking the effects of neurotransmitters. Others, affect the brain by encouraging it to hold onto extra neurotransmitters. Because it takes some time for these medications to affect and balance the neurotransmitters in the brain, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications need to be taken for a minimum period of time before results are noticed. Your prescribing doctor can advise you the time needed to experience the affects from your medication.
Why Stop Taking Psychotropic Medications?
People often decide to stop using their medications once they start to feel better. This can be a mistake. It is important to carefully consider this decision and preferably, discuss your desire to discontinue medication with your healthcare professional. Often, it’s wise to wait a while after feeling better before discontinuing your prescription. When people quit taking their medication too soon, symptoms can return and sometimes the medication does not have the same effect or potency on mood symptoms the next time around. It is often preferable to wait until you have made changes in your health behaviors and maintained them for long enough where they have become habits. Once you have made the changes needed to support your sustained mental health, you’ll want to make sure they are engrained and part of your life so that you will continue to be supported in this way after your medication has stopped. Other times, people may find the medication they are taking no longer works and they may need to stop one type of medication to start another. Additionally, people may need to discontinue using their medication due to some other health concern (possible side effects, drug interactions, or in cases of pregnancy).
What Happens When You Stop Anti-Depressant or Anti-Anxiety Medications?
If you are taking an anti-depressant medication and suddenly stop, it can cause unpleasant symptoms including nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, nightmares, and paresthesia (unpleasant sensations in the skin). If you are taking an anti-anxiety medication (or anxiolytic) and suddenly stop, symptoms could include nausea, vomiting, seizures, sweating, weight loss, heart palpitations, migraines, muscle pain, insomnia, and even suicidal thoughts. Specific side effects are unique to the medication and the person who is taking it. In either case, you may experience a rebound of psychological symptoms.
Because suddenly stopping anti-depressant or anxiety medication can cause unpleasant side effects, it is very important to consult with a doctor before you stop taking prescribed medications. A doctor can help to assess whether this is the right choice. They will also help you slowly reduce your dosage so that you are weaned off the medication safely, which helps to prevent uncomfortable side effects.
When you start or stop medications, it can be helpful to also seek the services of a qualified therapist who can help you address thoughts, feelings and emotions that may be affecting your mental health. A Dialectical Behavior Therapist (DBT) can provide specific education and skills to help you naturally cope with life’s ups and downs, without medication in some cases. A frequently used DBT slogan is, “Skills over pills.” This means that with learning and practice of DBT skills, often people can reduce or eliminate medication and lean on the DBT strategies they have learned to help them function effectively. The most important thing is to work together with your doctor and therapist to find the healthiest and most effective treatment solution for you.
Alternatives to Psychotropic Medications
Taking any type of prescribed medication is a personal choice. While doctors can advise you and make recommendations, ultimately, the decision whether to take psychotropic medication is up to you. Many times, making lifestyle changes can significantly impact your mood and decrease the need for prescription use. However, making these changes can be difficult and requires work. Only you and your wisdom can decide whether you are in a position and have access to the support needed to make these changes, or if now is not the time and medication is a worthwhile option.
If you are interested in making changes to your health behaviors to support a more balanced and stable mood, consider consulting with a Health Psychologist, such as Dr Bando. Health Psychologists are trained to understand all the factors maintaining the ineffective behaviors you are engaging in and help you directly target and change those behaviors to better support you. A good therapist can take out the guesswork and help you move toward your health goals with ease and precision.
Whatever your choice, please consult your wisdom and be gentle with yourself. In a time of difficulty (like experiencing depression or anxiety), increased self-compassion is needed.
Take action today and start shifting from surviving to THRIVING!