Lingering Side Effects of Quitting Antidepressants

Jane Tholen
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After quitting antidepressants four years ago, I finally have my life back after enduring their debilitating side effects for thirty years. It’s a whole new world: I wake up feeling bright and rested and take pleasure in everyday tasks — I’m functioning again.

Nobody told me what it would be like when I first stopped taking them. My psychiatrist cut me off because she wasn’t prescribing anymore, and I couldn’t find a primary care physician who knew anything about what I was going through. I quickly learned that I was on my own.

The worst is definitely over, but I’m still experiencing some lingering side effects. During the first year off the meds, high anxiety ruled. It has calmed down a lot, but I hadn’t been able to figure out how or why it gets triggered when I go out. I recently discovered that what I’ve been experiencing is not so much anxiety as it is an “over-stimulation” response to sights and sounds.

Ringing/buzzing in my head (tinnitus) has also been a problem. When I first came off the drugs it was severe. Now, four years off the drugs, it has calmed down significantly, but can still be triggered by anxiety. When the hyper-arousal to sights and sounds kicks in and my head starts buzzing, I’ve learned some ways to cope.

Over-Stimulation Effect

When I’m out in the world, I sometimes go into overdrive and think it’s high anxiety, which is a well-known side effect of discontinuation. I’ve been blaming myself for not being able to handle it better, which only makes it ratchet up.

Recently, I read an article about Laura Delano in which she says that she was “overstimulated by the colors of cereal boxes in the store and by the grating sounds of people talking and moving.” That’s what’s been happening to me: ordinary sights and sounds make me shudder or flinch and sometimes even shriek. It’s called “over-stimulation,” which is a much lesser-known long-term side effect of coming off antidepressants.

Harvard Health calls this discontinuing side effect “hypersensitivity to sound,” and I’ve also heard it described as “hyper-arousal.” The National Institute of Health suggests that an “auditory startle response” is part of post-traumatic stress, which I certainly experienced when I woke up after suffering the debilitating side effects of antidepressants for thirty years.

Regardless of what it’s called or where it comes from, I don’t go into high anxiety anymore when it happens — huge relief!

The other day I walked into a large gathering in a small, low-ceilinged room and was assaulted by the loud chatter. I started to shudder (sometimes referred to as a “tic”), but this time I knew what was happening and went out into the hall for relief. When the program started, I rejoined the meeting and was fine.

A year ago I went to a classical music concert and had a full-blown panic attack. I thought my reaction was high anxiety, but now I know it was the “over-stimulation” effect in full throttle — the live, full orchestra sound was just too loud. I went to the same concert hall a month ago, used earplugs (which I now carry with me), and enjoyed every minute of it.

Head Buzzing

While I was on antidepressants, the ringing in my ears and buzzing in my head were constant. Over the years, I went to several ear, nose and throat specialists who told me it was tinnitus and that there was nothing they could do about it. One suggested hearing aids, but I don’t have any trouble hearing.

In the years since quitting the drugs, it has diminished, but I notice that the buzzing in my head ramps up when I get anxious. To mask the sensations and keep them at a tolerable level at home, I run my kitchen exhaust fan during the day and flip on my white noise machine at night. I’m sleeping better than I have in a long time.

How I’m Coping

When I was on antidepressants, I existed from day to day with no routines for anything. As I began to reawaken into the real world, I had to re-train myself to do the basics by writing down a daily schedule of when to eat, when to do chores, when to go to sleep. At first I thought it was demeaning for a former bank vice president to have to do this, but it has helped me relearn a daily routine that makes everything else possible.

When the lingering side effects of quitting the drugs kick in, I’ve developed some ways of coping. Every day I take a walk at our little town beach — exercise always relieves my stress and anxiety. I don’t call it meditation; it’s just my quiet time. When my brain gets overloaded, I “go to the beach” in my head, visualizing how the water laps on the rocks and how the breeze feels on my face.

I’ve learned to detect when anxiety is creeping up: I can feel the muscles in my head, neck and shoulders tensing up. Now when it happens, I relax those muscles and sometimes give myself a massage starting at the top of my head and then moving down over my neck and shoulders.

I’ve also picked up some helpful de-stressing exercises from physical therapists.

These head/neck and shoulder stretching exercises help defuse my anxiety, and I can do them anywhere. I hold each position for at least five seconds without forcing it and return to a relaxed position between each one:

Head/Neck:

  • Drop chin toward chest and hold
  • Rotate head and look over your shoulder, right then left
  • Looking forward, tilt head toward shoulder, right then left
  • Pull chin in, keeping head level and shoulders down

Shoulders:

  • Rotate shoulders one at a time
  • Rotate shoulder blades back and squeeze
  • Grab elbow with opposite hand and pull toward chest
  • With arms on doorjamb or wall, lean forward

Then there’s breathing. I’d heard about square breathing, equal breathing and alternate nostril breathing but could never figure out how to do any of them. So, when I get in a jam, I just pay attention to my breathing — I call it 10×10 breathing. If I’m really wound up, I’ll take a few deep breaths to start calming down. Then, breathing normally, I count my natural breathing: 1 on inhale, 2 on exhale only up to ten. I count to ten as many times as it takes to settle down — I do it in the car, at the supermarket or in a room full of people.

Even though I’m dealing with these lingering side effects, I’m grateful I finally have my old self back. I just keep it simple and take it one day at a time.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Glad to hear your on the road to recovery Jane. I’m not a fan of the term Side Effects though, they’re just effects. For example the effect of me not wanting to speak to a Community Nurse was that I was spiked with benzodiazepines and had police point weapons at me to cause an ‘acute stress reaction’ and force me to talk. And this was quite effective, as it resulted in said Community Nurse being able to put words in my mouth and make it look like what he was doing was lawful. Snatched from my bed after being spiked with a date rape drug and thuis guy is having some major side effects on my relationships with others. In fact my ability to trust hasn’t returned in over 8 years (along with my ability to see my family etc). Fortunately after being subjected to 7 hours of interrogation whilst drugged without my knowledge it was found that there was nothing wrong with me and I was released back in to society. With an altered view of how these mental health professionals are caring for our community of course. Its a tough job especially when the public is becoming aware of how they are failing miserably with their mass drugging program. They need police to point weapons at people and covertly drug people with stupefying/intoxicating drugs to obtain compliance. I’m afraid that one of the side effects of being subjected to this type of ‘treatment’ is suicide. It’s the use of a persons loved one as the person to do the spiking for them that is the problem. See they have them do the dirty to you and then exercise their discretionary powers to ignore the criminal acts. Then by appointing your loved one as your ‘carer’ they are free to gaslight you to death basically, because all the while your wondering why they are doing the things they are doing to you. Not knowing that they are working with criminals who are pretending to be public officers/health care professionals. Their true colors are shown when you complain about their conduct though. They make it quite clear how powerful they are, and how they simply destroy anyone who wishes to make a legitimate complaint. And these are not idle threats.
    Fortunately the government is authorising the distribution of fraudulent documents to lawyers to ensure they are not held to account for these side effects. Their slandering of victims is working just fine to ensure the public isn’t made aware of the cause of their effects. And who is going to challenge these people? Easier to just feign shock later when their disgusting conduct is finally exposed, and live in the hope that they don’t come kicking in your door.
    Anywho, wish you luck in your future endeavours.
    Regards
    Boans

  2. I suppose this reminds me that August 2015 was when I quit Lexapro – four years seems odd, as if it hasn’t really been that long. I was so heavily drugged that the SSRI was the easiest to withdraw from and marked the beginning of my withdrawal journey. Gabapentin and Lamictal were the difficult ones for me. I’m still approaching three years off them all which feels like a real accomplishment.

    I developed tinnitus only about a year ago but I sympathize. I believe it’s not withdrawal related but symptomatic of Lyme Disease. It is maddening at times though. Loud music in headphones is the only relief I get from it.

    Anyway, congrats on your sustained recovery from psych drugs. Likewise, I find all of my moods much easier to cope with – and spring back from – now than when I was popping pills.

  3. Hi Jane, thanks for sharing. I took effexor for less than a year in 2003 and “accidentally” cold-turkeyed off it by forgetting to take it when we moved. It gave me vertigo from hell. I could not have my eyes open, really, because it was all moving. Lasted just over 2 weeks. But what it really did a number on was my ability to feel love. It has been 15 years and only a couple weeks ago, for the first time in 15 YEARS, did I feel the sensation of that rush of love for my wife I used to feel all the time. The drug was an expert thief- stole my ability to love without me noticing until the damage was done. I do not know if I will ever get everything back. But I love my wife, and love my cats.

    Re: tinnitus, I have what they call pulsative tinnitus, which is not a ringing in the ears, it is the whooshing sound of the blood coursing through my carotid artery. Most times when I am experiencing it enough to bother me, my BP is running high. (Oddly, smoking cannabis sometimes brings on the whooshing even though it lowers my BP, a weird I have not yet figured out.) If you have access to a BP monitor, you might want to check it during these episodes of over-stimulation just to see.

  4. Thank you, Jane, for sharing your experience! I, too, have drug-free since 2011. As you described, it is not an easy journey and you pretty much have to be your own best friend/doctor/therapist/coach during it all. So glad you made it!
    I recently found that psych meds (and others) tend to deplete your store of vitamins and minerals while also making it hard to absorb them in your gut. I am seeing a wellness doctor to learn how to restore these. B Complex is essential along with magnesium & potassium. Even a sub-clinical deficiency can cause major problems. Lack of Thiamine is Beri-Beri and can give you some of the symptoms you describe. Research for yourself to discover if this is something you might need to look into. 🙂
    Congratulations on a job well done.