How the Side Effects of Antidepressants Are Hurting Your Relationship
oday, I want to talk about depression. But, I don’t want to talk about why you (or someone you know) has depression.
Instead, I want to talk about the treatment most likely offered to you: antidepressants.
Antidepressants (can) come with a whole host of side effects that you may or may not be aware of.
Yep, that’s right. Antidepressants can cause you more harm than good.
And, for that reason, I want to talk about how the side effects of antidepressants are hurting your relationship.
Facts about depression
It’s safe to say that depression is a commonly occurring mental health challenge and one that is linked to diminished role functioning, quality of life, medical morbidity, and mortality.
In fact, depression is ranked as the 4th leading cause of disability in the world by the World Health Organization and set to be the 2nd leading cause by 2020.
Now, although we know that depression affects individuals, many of the impacts of depression can also be seen in our relationships.
How depression hurts our relationship
The Scientific American details the top warning signs that depression is affecting your relationship. These warning signs include:
- A diminished sex life
- Feelings of hopelessness about your relationship
- Dealing with emotions becomes overly difficult
- Your (negative) behaviours become externalized
- Anxiety begins to be a problem
The symptoms above can be quite distressing for relationships; realistically, any partner would have difficulty coping with even some of these symptoms.
If you are someone who struggles with symptoms of depression, you’d think that it would be helpful to get a complete picture of what your treatment approach will mean to you and, most importantly, how it will be helpful to you.
Treating depression with medication
However, that is sadly not always the case for individuals suffering from depression.
Indeed, I believe that we – those of us who work in the fields of psychotherapy and medicine – contribute to the problem of ill-treating our common mental health challenges like depression.
We do so by supporting the sustained, long-term use of medications that give rise to a host of side effects that many experience from taking antidepressant medication.
These side effects are similar and often mimic those of the depression in the first place, making it more challenging for a patient or client to differentiate between what symptom is theirs and what symptoms are coming from the antidepressant medication.
Let’s take a good look at how the side effects of antidepressants are hurting your relationship.
How the side effects of antidepressants are hurting your relationship
Antidepressants are commonly prescribed to people suffering from depression.
In fact, they are often the first intervention a person receives when they reach out for help with their depression.
Sadly, many people are prescribed antidepressants without fully understanding the side effects that antidepressants carry.
What is even more bleak, from my perspective as a couple therapist, is that the side effects that antidepressants carry are often not disclosed to the individual.
I have several stories that illustrate this conundrum, but the two that stick in my head are of two different couples seeking help because their sex lives had diminished so rapidly and to such a low that they hadn’t had sex in over a year.
Yep, that was two different couples that came to see me in the span of two weeks.
After a brief assessment and rundown of the past year, it was discovered that both male partners had been placed on antidepressant medication and, within a short period of time, began to lose interest in sex.
To my amazement, neither male partner brought their loss of libido to the attention of their doctor and, worse yet, they thought it was the depression that caused their declining interest in sex.
Dangers of not understanding the side effects of antidepressants
The danger of not disclosing or making individuals aware of the potential side effects that antidepressants carry is that people are left to discover, navigate and mitigate those side effects on their own, often without help.
It should be up to the prescribing caregiver to inform their patients that antidepressants come with a whole host of side effects.
More importantly, the prescribing caregiver should be warning clients to watch out for the side effects with the plan that should the patient experience any new changes in their mood or physiology, they should return to the caregiver at once.
Now, I don’t want to just bash the medical professionals treating individuals with depression.
Psychotherapists should be on the look-out as well for any of their clients that are on antidepressant medication and suffering from side effects.
Sadly, that is not often the case either.
Now back to you, the client.
Monitoring our own drug reactions
Let’s be honest for a moment. How many of us can monitor our own physical responses to drug interactions? Especially when those are mood related?
Are any of us fully aware of how medications can impact our bodies?
Without medical degrees and training, we are often left to fend for ourselves and monitor our reactions to prescribed medications.
The need to monitor our drug interactions is not unique to antidepressants.
However, antidepressants can impact our mood. Therefore, it can be more challenging for us to determine if a change in our mood is from the depressive symptoms we already face, or from our body’s reaction to the antidepressant medication.
To help you with that, here is a look at how the side effects of antidepressants are hurting your relationship.
Hopefully, you can watch out for any of these side effects and should you experience any of them, then I strongly urge you to consult your primary care physician.
How the side effects of antidepressants are hurting your relationship
1. Increased irritability.
Antidepressant medication is known to lead to an increased sense of irritability among some individuals who take them. Some individuals who take antidepressant medication experience agitation, restlessness or anxiety because of the stimulating effects of antidepressants.
2. Increased weight gain.
Antidepressant medication can lead to weight gain. Doctors and researchers aren’t entirely sure why certain antidepressants lead to weight gain, however, it is clear that some antidepressants have led to unwanted weight gain in those who have been placed on the medication.
3. Loss of sex drive.
Antidepressant medication can lead to a loss of libido. This is a common side effect across most antidepressants and, sadly, the newer generation of antidepressants (SSRI’s or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are most commonly associated with sexual side effects.
4. Poor sleep or loss of sleep.
Antidepressant medication can lead to poor sleep or loss of sleep. I would like to know how much the lack of sleep is related to reason #1 (an increased sense of irritability due to the stimulating effects of antidepressants), but one thing I know for sure is that I’m cranky when I haven’t had a good night’s rest.
How about you? Do you get on well in the day feeling tired and like you had a terrible night’s sleep?
5. Antidepressant use can lead to chronic depression that is unresponsive to treatment.
Antidepressant medication can lead to chronic or severe depression, unresponsive to treatment depression.
Yes, you read that right.
Antidepressants can make your depression worse, more chronic and less responsive to treatment.
In a recently released study by Swiss researchers, it was discovered that antidepressants are suspected of making depression worse by changing or altering our brain’s receptor sensitization. In other words, you could say that antidepressants are responsible for a chemical imbalance in the brain by modifying the way neuroreceptors work. This effect has been documented with the medication losing effectiveness and ultimately worsening people’s depression.
As we come full circle and consider the 5 side effects of antidepressants listed above, doesn’t it make sense that these are going to have a poignant and damaging impact on your relationship?
Impact on our relationship
Take for example increased irritability, which may or may not be caused by the stimulating effect of antidepressants.
If that same stimulating effect causes you to lose sleep, then it doesn’t take a big jump to see how that very same lack of sleep may be causing you to become irritable, agitated or generally thinner skinned.
How do you suppose your relationship is to cope when one or more partners is ‘thinly skinned” and less able to regulate their emotions and responses?
You bet that any relationship is going to suffer.
And take a moment to consider how weight gain could have an impact on one’s general sense of self.
Is weight gain something that most of us strive for?
Sure, I imagine some bodybuilders preparing for a competition would enjoy a larger body size.
But, in general, most of us are trying to control our weight because we associate our appearance with our sense of self, our identity.
That’s not always a good thing. However, it’s safe to say that how we look is important to our overall sense of confidence.
It stands to reason then that when we pile on unwanted weight gain caused by antidepressants, very few of us are likely to feel good about ourselves.
And in a relationship, it is vital that both partners feel good about the skin they’re in – how we feel on the inside is often felt by those around us.
Without a positive sense of self and confidence, we are likely to feel more negative about ourselves and therefore lose the ability to put our best foot forward in our relationship.
Impact on our sex lives
I’m guessing that I don’t need to elaborate too much on the importance of sex in relationships.
But, let’s just agree that physical intimacy is a big reason why two people become a couple in the first place.
In my line of work, when we meet someone struggling with depressive symptoms, we’re going to take stock of the risk-factors in their life such as alcohol use, recent losses, financial distresses, and the like.
We are also trained to look out for a person’s protective-factors, like family, hobbies, friends and such.
Essentially, protective factors should be thought of as the strengths or assets present in a person’s life that help them maintain mental wellbeing and resiliency.
So, on which side do you suppose sex and physical intimacy fall? You guessed it, sex is a protective factor against depression.
Now, imagine what a lack of sex in a relationship constitutes.
That’s right, a lack of sex is a risk-factor for the relationship and ultimately for the individual’s wellbeing itself.
Leading to poor long-term outcomes
The final thing I’d like to mention regarding the side effects of antidepressants is the most concerning of them all: the prognosis that antidepressant medication may lead to chronic or severe depression, and depression that is unresponsive to treatment.
In his piece found on madinamerica.com , Peter Simmons discusses how Swiss-based researchers concluded there is a growing body of evidence that “suggest that (long-term) antidepressant use may produce a poor long-term outcome in people with depression”.
In light of this new evidence, I am inclined to hold a less optimistic view about the effectiveness of antidepressants.
Perhaps its time to see that the negative consequences of long-term antidepressant use outweigh the positive.
Here’s what I think
Now, it would be unethical of me to tell any of my clients not to use antidepressant medication.
However, that is why I love the power of the blog, because I need not hold back my opinion.
And here it is. I’m not a big fan of antidepressant medication – at least for long term use.
In fact, there is a dearth of research supporting the argument that serotonin deficits cause depression, as clinical psychologist Dr. Bruce Levine, PhD has argued. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true.
In a 2009 meta-analysis published on JAMA by the American Medical Association researchers found that “no evidence” could be found to support the theory that serotonin alone or in interaction with stressful life events was associated with an increased risk of developing depression in men alone, women alone, or in both sexes combined.
If we are to take those findings, that serotonin levels are dissociated with depression, then altering the brain’s natural serotonin chemical balance is a no-go in my opinion.
Do no harm principle
Having shared with you the dangers of the side effects of antidepressant medication, it would be unethical of me to not offer advice should you be struggling with the side effects of antidepressant medication.
As an online individual and couple therapist, I have a duty to help that is guided by the principle of do no harm.
To not offer you a place to turn or referral for some help would be doing you harm.
I also firmly believe that our relationship with our partner should be part of the solution and not the victim of the problem.
It’s important that we vigilantly protect our relationship, as its wellbeing will have a direct impact on our own, and vice versa.
So, for those reasons, here’s what you should do.
First, if you experience any of the side effects of antidepressant medication discussed above, then you need to share that with your prescribing physician.
Your doctor is trained to understand the side effects and may respond by changing the dosage or type of medication you are on.
Second, consider changing the treatment approach of your depression.
No one wants to suffer by piling on even more symptoms to their depression; therefore, adding side effects from medication may not be your preferred treatment approach.
Perhaps you could consider treatments that come with lower risk of side effects. One such treatment is psychotherapy, or talk therapy.
Now, in full disclosure, I am a psychotherapist who offers online therapy to both individuals and couples.
Part of what I do is help adults and couples with depression.
My trade as a psychotherapist is an effective treatment for depression.
However, talk therapy is not for everyone.
If that’s the case, talking with holistic or wellness practitioners in your area can be another good alternative.
For some people, simply rediscovering old hobbies or getting active again with fitness, yoga or martial arts is enough to combat the symptoms of depression.
There is no one size fits all approach.
What is important is that you find out what works for you.
Lastly, I must agree with Dr. Kelly Brogan, MD, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist, who argues that we live in the natural world and as such perhaps the best approach to healing is viewing symptoms of depression as a message that our natural world is trying to convey to us about our bodies and spirit.
Is the message that our depressive symptoms are tellings us one that is meant to call our attention to all facets of our lives? Should we not to view our symptoms in a more holistic manner and not one simply focused on brain chemistry (that is based on incomplete and arguably shoddy science)?
I agree with Dr. Brogan that aligning ourselves with our natural world is a great place to start.
And, most importantly, your relationship will thank you. You can choose to take a safer, less risky approach to coping with depressive symptoms when you harness what Dr. Brogan refers to as the “most powerful tools” for healing – those being our own movement, diet, meditation and environmental detoxification.
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About the Author
Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time online therapist and relationship coach helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner. Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting. Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.