Coming off antidepressants is no easy decision. You can’t just wake up one day and decide to ditch the drugs. Unfortunately, the nature of antidepressant medication means that quitting cold turkey will give you nasty withdrawal symptoms, known as SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome. If you’ve ever gone a few days without your regular antidepressant then you know what I’m talking about. That shit SUCKS.
And if you’re not fearing the SSRI withdrawal, you’re fearing relapse. If you’ve been on medication for a long time it’s difficult to imagine what life would be like without it. Sure, you’re happy now. But are you REALLY happy? Or is that the chemicals affecting your reuptake of serotonin? These are the questions that run through our minds when we’re trying to decide whether or not to pack in the pills. It’s no wonder so many people give in and rely on this medication for the rest of their lives.
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Symptoms of SSRI withdrawal
So what are the symptoms of SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome? Well, we’re talking…
- Muscle pain
- Brain zaps
- Visual disturbances
- Vivid dreams
- Suicidal thoughts
- Impaired concentration
- and in some cases psychosis and catatonia
Yep – there’s a lot.
Basically, the no1 advice anyone can give you is DO NOT STOP COLD TURKEY. You may think that you’re invincible and the symptoms won’t affect you, but think again. The one thing I can guarantee is that withdrawal is inevitable if you stop antidepressants cold turkey.
So what’s the solution? It’s pretty self-explanatory really, but you must taper off antidepressants in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms. This means you must come off slowly. Gradually decrease your dose over a period of time (I recommend at least 4 weeks) and don’t make dose changes too quickly. If you do, you’ll regret it!
My personal experience coming off antidepressants
Why did I decide to come off antidepressants?
I’d been on SSRIs for 7 years before deciding I was ready to come off them. For reference, I initially started on fluoxetine but had been on sertraline 50mg for the past two years. I had worked through my difficulties using EMDR therapy for my complex PTSD and I felt in a much happier and more stable place than I had before this trauma work. I also had a solid spiritual practice incorporating meditation and yoga, which I think was a huge part of my mental health recovery. I was happy.
I was also moving towards a more natural and healthy lifestyle where I was conscious of what I was putting in my body. I’d already stopped taking other forms of medication such as birth control, and so I figured this was the next step.
When I first started taking medication I was in an awful place, and the thought of going back to this place was terrifying. But at the same time, I was actually curious to see if my current happiness was me and all the hard work I’d put into my recovery, or if it was just the chemical affects of this pill I was taking. I didn’t like the feeling of reliance on medication for my mental well-being.
How did I come off antidepressants?
I’d read about coming off antidepressants before so I knew the importance of tapering off, and I was pretty confident I could do this on my own.
I had originally planned to see my GP to discuss a plan coming off and I had an appointment booked for a few weeks time. But as with everything else in my life, I am very impatient. I had decided I wanted to come off, so that’s what I was going to do.
I didn’t exactly have a set schedule. I was just going to play around with doses a bit and listen to my body. It took me around 7 weeks to completely transition off this way, including a few blips where I had to slow down and take a step back. The process looked a bit like this…
- Week 1: Alternating between 50mg and 25mg daily
- Week 2: 25mg daily
- Week 3: 25mg every other day for a few days, then back to 25mg daily
- Week 4: Alternating between 25mg and 12.5mg daily
- Week 5: 12.5mg daily
- Week 6: 12.5mg every other day
- Week 7: 12.5mg every few days
What happened when I came off antidepressants?
My experience coming off antidepressants was something I can describe in no other way than a rollercoaster.
At first, it felt like a piece of cake. I was wondering what all the fuss was about?!
But then the symptoms started to creep in… after about two weeks I was experiencing extreme I-want-to-punch-everybody-in-the-face agitation. I had serious brain fog, was crying at everything and experiencing urges to self harm.
Nonetheless I persevered, I figured that this would be the worst of it, right? Sure, I was feeling pretty crappy. But I could cope with this, and my theory was if I continued tapering down as quickly as possible then I’d shorten the length of time I had to feel this crappy for (spoiler alert: do not do what I did next).
I’d only just reduced my previous dose and I decided that it was a good idea to reduce it again. In hindsight, not my brightest of ideas. While I thought I was doing the right thing and “listening to my body”, I hadn’t actually given my body enough time to adjust to the new level of medication in my system. To add fuel to the fire, this next reduction was extreme. I was upping the anti because I thought I could cope with it. I couldn’t.
The week after this was hell.
The extremely painful and treatment resistant headaches set in, as well as brain zaps and diarrhea. I felt horribly low in mood and unfortunately had a self-harm relapse for the first time in over two years. I had to call in sick to work for a couple of days to try and get my shit together. On my return I experienced an anxiety attack and had a bit of a mental breakdown to my boss, which resulted in me being sent home and taking a week off as annual leave. Not fun.
Conveniently enough, the doctors appointment that I had scheduled a few weeks prior fell during this week so I took a trip to my GP at my lowest point. My doctor was super reassuring and he helped me to develop a plan for the next few weeks to minimise my symptoms and come off my medication safely.
I now know that a visit to my GP would have been helpful in the beginning. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, right?
Tips for coming off antidepressants and managing withdrawal symptoms
The brilliant thing about my experience is that it’s helped me to develop a little bit of wisdom, which allows me to recommend what to do in order to come off antidepressants with minimal negative effects.
So here are my top tips for coming off antidepressants and managing withdrawal symptoms:
1. Be certain of your decision
Evaluate your decision to come off SSRIs. Why do you want to come off? Are you stable enough to come off? Do you have a good support system in place to come off? Have you put in the work to come off? Ultimately, if nothing has changed in your life since going on antidepressants, it probably isn’t a good time to come off. Remember that medication simply masks your symptoms and doesn’t treat the underlying cause of your mental illness.
2. Visit your GP
If you’re cocky like me you’ll probably want to skip this step because you think you know best. But you’ll be surprised how reassuring a trip to your GP can actually be. Or at the very least, make sure you do your research!
3. Establish your support system
Who will you reach out to if things get difficult? Book some time off work if you have to. Stay with a friend. If you know you’re usually vulnerable when you’re alone, don’t put yourself in that position.
4. Taper off
Whatever you do, don’t quit cold turkey for god’s sake. It’s not going to be pleasant and I promise you will regret it.
5. Go slow
Give your body time to adjust between stages. There’s really no point in tapering if you’re not going to wean yourself off slowly. There’s no rush.
6. Listen to your body
And I mean really listen. If you feel discomfort, stop there for a while. Don’t think “oh, I can handle it!” because chances are you can’t.
7. Don’t be afraid to increase your dose
I know that this can be disheartening because you feel like you’re taking a step back. But sometimes this is necessary if your body is freaking out at a lower dose.
8. Eat healthily
Make sure to eat lots of fruits and vegetables to stay in good health and drink lots of water to hydrate your body!
9. Take supplements
Supplement with things that improve your sense of wellbeing such as magnesium and CBD oil. Take a multivitamin to make sure your immune system is on top form as well as a high quality probiotic.
10. Cut out caffeine
It’s tempting to sip on coffee when you’re feeling tired and deflated. But caffeine is going to heighten all of the uncomfortable SSRI withdrawal symptoms. Opt for decaf or herbal teas instead!
11. It’s not you, it’s the medication
Getting an increase in previous symptoms can be super scary and seem like your mental illness is coming back. There’s a good chance that this is not the case and that you are just experiencing withdrawal. Reminding yourself of this can give you some relief over what you’re feeling.
12. Forgive yourself
Forgive yourself if you relapse or aren’t on top form. Having a self-harm relapse was really difficult for me because I had gone such a long period without this behaviour. Forgiving myself for this was extremely important because I felt a lot of shame in relation to this.
I’m not telling you about my experience to scare you, but to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes as I did. Because while coming off antidepressants certainly isn’t easy – it doesn’t have to be the hardest thing in the world either!
And look, I survived it! If I can get through it you certainly can too!
Are you thinking of coming off antidepressants or do you have a story to share? Let me know in the comments below!