Whether you’ve dealt with depression for a long time or are struggling to cope with the difficulties of the past year, antidepressants can help. These aren’t a quick fix, though — it’s important to know what to expect when starting antidepressants in order to help ease your body’s adjustment period.
Antidepressants work by restoring a healthier balance to the chemicals in your brain that impact your mood, says licensed counselor Phaidra Wills. And they’re incredibly common — roughly 25 million adults in the U.S. have been taking them for at least two years, according to the American Pharmacist Association. Antidepressants help manage symptoms of depression like despair, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, and insomnia. You can get a few different kinds of antidepressant medications — from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which block your cells from absorbing too much serotonin and allow more of the feel-good chemical to stay active in your brain, to serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) — but they all generally work to better regulate signal processes in the brain.
But there can be a transition period as your body adjusts to any type of antidepressant medication, during which you can experience side effects like fatigue, headaches, and more. For some, it can take up to a few months for your body to get used to the medication. Others might not have a transition period at all, says Wills. Essentially, you can’t judge one person’s experience with antidepressants when taking it yourself, says licensed counselor Nawal Alomari, who notes transitions onto the medication vary widely.
The most important thing to do when starting antidepressants is to work closely with your psychiatrist as you figure out the proper dosage, and to check in if you’re experiencing any prolonged unpleasant side effects, says Alomari. Though the transition onto antidepressants is different for everyone, mental health experts say these are nine common changes that you might notice as you start medication.
1. Improved Mood
Fortunately, some of the changes you might notice as you start antidepressants are positive. First and foremost? Your mood can change for the better, says Wills. You might notice that feelings of despair, hopelessness, or suicidal thoughts subside, says Alomari. That’s your antidepressant at work balancing the chemicals in your brain. You might notice these changes in as little as a week, though it can take up to a few months to feel the full effects depending on your body, she says.
Just remember that antidepressants are not a magical cure for depression, cautions Alomari. She recommends pairing your medication regimen with regular therapy and healthy lifestyle habits to help ease your symptoms from multiple angles.
Though it might sound antithetical, anxiety is a common side effect you might experience in the early weeks or months of your medication regimen. Antidepressants improve the balance of mood-regulating chemicals in your brain, which can boost your mood and energy levels, says Alomari. “You might feel more anxious because you have more energy and your brain doesn't know what to do with it right away.”
She recommends exercise and consistent sleep to help you adjust to that energy boost. And, as you acclimate, improved energy levels can help you tackle your day and feel better while doing it, she says.
3. Changes In Sleep
That boost in energy can likewise give you trouble falling asleep since you simply may not be as tired as you usually are come bedtime, according to Alomari. Antidepressants also balance your serotonin levels, which makes it easier for your brain cells to communicate with one another. That chatter, though healthy, can mess with your ability to stay asleep, says Wills. Luckily, you should adapt within a few weeks or months.
On the other hand, you may actually start sleeping better once you start antidepressants, Wills notes. Depression and insomnia often occur hand-in-hand, so starting treatment can help you get more quality ZZZs on the regular.
If you’re having difficulty falling or staying asleep, that can lead to fatigue during the day, says Alomari. Remember: Your body is adjusting to a new chemical balance — this can make you feel tired as you transition. Napping, exercise, and building a regular sleep schedule can all help combat daytime sleepiness, says Alomari. This might last a few weeks depending on how long it takes your body to get used to the medication and the changes it brings, though if you’re still struggling with fatigue after a month, she recommends checking in with your psychiatrist.
You might notice you’re getting more headaches than usual when you start antidepressants, and that’s totally normal, according to Wills. It’s a side effect of your body adjusting to the medication, and should clear up on its own within about three weeks.
6. Feeling Social
Depression can often lead to trouble socializing or isolation, and starting antidepressants can help tackle those problems. That, along with better energy levels and mood, can improve your ability to engage with others, says Wills. You might notice these changes within a few weeks or months of starting antidepressants, depending on how quickly your body adjusts.
7. Change In Appetite
Lack of appetite is a common symptom of depression, according to Alomari. And that can change as antidepressants start to improve your mood. You may notice that you’re hungrier than usual or that you gain some weight after starting your medication, and that can all be a sign that your depression is improving. For instance, you might find yourself going out to dinner with friends more often as your symptoms subside.
8. Increased Productivity
Another change to expect is more energy and a better mood, says Wills. Antidepressants can also improve your ability to focus and concentrate, which can boost your productivity at work and in life in general. You might start noticing better attention span or a jolt of productivity as soon as a few weeks after starting medication, though it can take up to a few months to really kick in.
9. Changes In Sex Drive
You might notice your libido changes when you start antidepressants, says Wills. Increases and decreases in your sex drive can both be normal as the chemical balance in your body changes. While your body may adjust within a few weeks or months, decreased sex drive is also a common long-term side effect of antidepressants. If these changes are extreme or hard to cope with after about a month on your medication, check in with your psychiatrist about whether another dose or antidepressant might be best for you instead.
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Nawal Alomari, L.C.P.C., a licensed clinical professional counselor and life coach based in Chicago
Phaidra Wills, L.C.P.C., a licensed clinical professional counselor in Chicago