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Can SSRIs Save You From Stress and Anxiety?

Victoria LeBlanc, MS, LCPC
Can SSRIs Save You From Stress and Anxiety?

SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are a type of antidepressant commonly used to treat both depression and anxiety disorders.

Anxiety medications have their place, but they should not be the first choice for treating your anxiety. It is also important to point out that medication alone can't cure anxiety. But if you are going to take some type of medication, SSRIs are one of the most common options.

Choosing Medication

It should be noted that medications are always a bit risky. In some cases the side effects are worth the risk. In others, it is strongly worth trying alternative treatments that do not use medications, since medications affect the brain and other major organs in the body. 

How SSRIs Work

The brain is filled with neurotransmitters which are responsible for sending messages through the brain. Normally when a neurotransmitter has sent a message it is then reabsorbed back into the nerve cell. SSRIs work by preventing the neurotransmitter from being reabsorbed; instead it remains, temporarily, in the gap between nerves (known as the synapse). Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), or serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors - as they are also known - increase the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. The thought is that by increasing the number of transmitters present in the synapse communication between nerve cells is improved. 

Serotonin has many roles in the body, including the regulation of your appetite, your sleeping patterns, your body temperature and your memory. It also plays a primary role in regulating your mood, which is the main reason why supplemental serotonin, the most common form of antidepressant, is prescribed for people experiencing anxiety or depression. People of both the male and female gender with anxiety disorders may exhibit lower levels of serotonin than normal.

Types of Anxiety Approved for Treatment with SSRIs

There are two types of anxiety for which SSRIs are regularly prescribed. The SSRI treatment recommendations for each type of anxiety are as follows.

SSRI Side Effects

Over the course of the 1-4 weeks that it takes for most people to adjust to SSRIs, almost all SSRIs will have one or more temporary side effects. The possible short term side effects of SSRIs during these initial weeks are listed below.

If you find that you are experiencing one or more of these side effects and that it further impedes your functionality, your may be able to switch treatment to a different SSRI to avoid that particular effect.

SSRIs also have some long term side effects as well. Possible long term side effects of SSRIs include:

Because of the potential risk factors involved in taking SSRIs, which are relatively low-risk antidepressants, it is a good idea to engage in self help and to spend time finding a therapist who is a good fit for you before resorting to antidepressant medications.

Even though low serotonin can contribute to anxiety, raising serotonin will not necessarily improve it. Furthermore, high levels of serotonin also contribute to anxiety, which makes finding the correct balance a sometimes difficult and lengthy process. Because of the side effects and impact on your brain chemistry SSRIs should never be taken without a doctor's supervision.

Possible Substance Interactions

Painkillers belonging to the NSAID drug family can reduce the impact of SSRIs and should be avoided in order to allow SSRI medications to function properly. Three common NSAIDs are listed below:

SSRIs can interact negatively with some medications, supplements and recreational substances by increasing their toxicity. Substances commonly used by people with anxiety that should not be combined with SSRIs include:

Ask your doctor about possible interactions you should be aware of if you are taking any other medication simultaneously, even if it’s just cough medicine, as many other medications including some cough medicines can also interact negatively with SSRIs.

Many of the above substances, as well as overdosing on SSRIs, can result in a condition called serotonin syndrome, in which high levels of serotonin overwhelm the body. Serotonin syndrome can be mild, moderate or severe. Severe serotonin syndrome can be fatal.

Mild serotonin syndrome is marked by many symptoms reminiscent of regular anxiety symptoms, such as sweating, shaking, pupil dilation and increased heart rate, but may also include diarrhea, headaches, goosebumps and loss of muscle coordination. Moderate serotonin syndrome involves agitation, high bodily temperatures of up to 104 degrees F, in addition to the above symptoms. Severe serotonin syndrome can cause irregular heartbeat high body temperatures (up to 106 degrees F), seizures, and unconsciousness which leads to shock and even death.

Overview of SSRI Safety

If you are considering taking SSRIs for your anxiety, it is important to be aware of the risks involved and to use the medication safely. Resort to SSRIs only if therapy and self help do not improve your condition. Ask about SSRIs in liquid form to reduce the likelihood of withdrawal and anxiety recurrence, and avoid combining SSRIs with any other medications or recreational substances to have the safest experience possible.

Article Resources
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  3. Hu XH, Bull SA, Hunkeler EM, et al. (July 2004). Incidence and duration of side effects and those rated as bothersome with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor treatment for depression: patient report versus physician estimate. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 65 (7): 959–65.
  4. Landén M, Högberg P, Thase ME (January 2005). Incidence of sexual side effects in refractory depression during treatment with citalopram or paroxetine. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 66 (1): 100–6.
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