How Do Antidepressants Work?

How Do Antidepressants Work?

Published on March 5, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

Prescription antidepressants are becoming increasingly common as an effective way to treat a wide array of mental health issues.  Unfortunately, these medications continue to carry a heavy stigma in our culture, which leads to a great deal of misinformation and reluctance surrounding their use. 

Many people mistakenly believe that antidepressants are a type of sedative that will turn them into a “zombie,” or that taking these pills will somehow fundamentally alter their personality in a way that stunts creativity or relationships.  The truth is that antidepressants are not used for sedative effects, and the changes that occur in the brain as a result of antidepressant use have nothing to do with changing someone’s personality.

However, these medications have been known to have great success in treating depression, anxiety, and several other mental health disorders, especially when used in conjunction with therapy. Understanding the ways in which antidepressants work and dismantling common myths is an important part of removing the stigma and allowing more people access to these helpful medications.

Antidepressants and Your Brain

There are several kinds of antidepressants commonly prescribed by a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner to treat various mental health issues.  The truth is that at this point in time, there is a lack of research and information regarding the exact mechanisms that lead to mental health disorders.

This means that even experts are unsure of exactly how antidepressants work, but we know that they do.  Depression and other mental health issues are often described as a chemical imbalance or deficiency, but the reality is not that simple.

Researchers have gathered enough information over the past several decades, however, to come up with some likely explanations of how antidepressants work. Chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, are responsible for communication between brain cells.

Different antidepressants have been shown to affect neurotransmitter activity, perhaps improving communication between areas of the brain that control mood. Different categories of antidepressants have been shown to affect neurotransmitters in different ways, some working better for some individuals than others.

Types of Antidepressants

Reuptake Inhibitors, also known as SSRIs, SNRIs, and NDRIs, are some of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants.  These medications affect the number of available neurotransmitters involved in many vital functions, including mood regulation.  By inhibiting the reuptake, or reabsorption, of certain naturally-occurring chemicals after they are released by nerve cells, neurotransmitter levels are kept higher and therefore, theoretically, communication in the brain improves. 

Depending on the type of medication, reuptake inhibitors may affect levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the brain. In addition to these popular medications, some doctors choose to prescribe tetracyclics or SARIs. 

Tetracyclics are antidepressant drugs that also affect neurotransmitter activity, but not through preventing reuptake.  Instead, tetracyclics stop neurotransmitters from binding with certain nerve receptors, therefore they begin to build up between nerve cells. 

Serotonin antagonist and reuptake inhibitors, or SARIs, act in two ways by preventing serotonin reuptake while also preventing serotonin from binding to receptors where it would not be put to good use, and instead, direct it toward nerve cells that influence mood.

How Antidepressants Affect Your Life

Understanding the science behind antidepressant medications is one thing, but if you are someone considering antidepressants to help you manage symptoms of a mental health disorder, you may be wondering how these brain changes will look when applied to real life.  It is important to remember that every brain is different, and not every individual will respond to each medication in the same way.

It is critical to work closely with a doctor to find the right medication for you, and not to give up if the first medication you try does not produce the desired results. However, once you do find a medication that works well with your unique brain chemistry, there are several positive changes you can expect to see in your life.

For example, many people who struggle with depression and anxiety also have problems with sleep. Antidepressants can alter your mood in a way that helps you to fall asleep faster and stay asleep through the night, allowing you to create a healthy sleep routine.

Additionally, antidepressants can help you to regain focus if you were having trouble concentrating, allowing you to perform better at work and be more present with your loved ones at home.  Antidepressants can elevate your mood enough to motivate you to make healthier lifestyle choices that will also improve your mental health, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. 

Many people who struggle with depression and other mental health issues turn to drugs or alcohol to manage their symptoms, and in doing so may develop an addiction. Antidepressant medications are often an important part of an addiction recovery program, as well as a vital pillar of sobriety maintenance and overall mental wellness going forward.  If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder, now is the time to reach out for help.

 The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses. We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigma may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult.

Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships. By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing.

First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their communities, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490