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Are Antidepressants Addictive?

Antidepressants are not addictive in the same way alcohol, opioids, or benzodiazepines are. The most common antidepressants in use today are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. As the name suggests, these work–theoretically, at least–by raising the amount of serotonin in the brain.

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with a sense of wellbeing. It is different from the dopamine associated with addictive drugs. Dopamine acts very quickly, as an immediate reward for certain kinds of behaviors. In addictive drugs, the dopamine response is amplified, creating a feeling of pleasure–sometimes intense pleasure–in the user.

SSRIs are much different. You typically have to take an SSRI daily for several weeks before you notice the effect. Therefore, the drug is not strongly associated with immediate pleasure. In fact, an SSRI doesn’t stimulate pleasure so much as reduces misery. The lack of a clear association between the drug and a positive effect makes addiction unlikely.

Addictive drugs also tend to escalate as tolerance builds. You need more of the drug to get the same effect. This happens as your brain changes the concentrations of various neurotransmitters or receptors. For example, benzodiazepines enhance the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, so your brain produces less of it. Then, if you suddenly quit, your GABA levels are so low that you are at risk of seizures.

The action of SSRIs is different. As the concentration of serotonin grows, eventually, the number of receptor sites diminishes. If it were dopamine receptors disappearing, you would build a tolerance a need more of the drug, but serotonin has a certain kind of receptor that actually inhibits serotonin production. After a few weeks, these receptors diminish and the brain can naturally produce more serotonin on its own. One theory holds that people who suffer from depression have too many of these kinds of receptors and reducing the number allows the brain to produce serotonin at normal levels.

There are sometimes withdrawal symptoms from quitting SSRIs abruptly. These happen in about 20 percent of cases and are relatively mild. Symptoms might include headaches, dizziness, agitation, shaking, and return of depression. Doctors and therapists typically recommend tapering off of SSRIs to avoid these symptoms.

Most importantly, no one has cravings after quitting SSRIs, there’s no constantly seeking the drug, there’s no cycle of quitting and relapsing, and SSRI use does not disrupt life at home or work, all of which characterize addiction.

That said, depression is highly correlated with addiction. It’s possible to be on SSRIs and be addicted to something else, although effective treatment for depression will reduce the chances of a serious addiction. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction and depression, Gardens Wellness Center can help you detox and decide on a treatment strategy. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn more.