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Anxiety Series Part One: Getting off the Drugs

Getting off antidepressants and learning to manage anxiety on my own:  A little over three months ago, after being fed up with numerous side effects and realizing that I wanted to see what my natural state of mind was, I decided to stop taking SSRI’s. SSRI’s are pharmaceutical drugs, prescribed to alleviate depression and anxiety by blocking receptors in your brain that usually absorb serotonin. This leaves serotonin, otherwise known as the happiness chemical, floating around in your brain, hopefully resulting in a more pleasant, less anxious day-to-day life experience. By no means am I against SSRI’s or antidepressants. I believe that there are many situations in which people can benefit from these drugs, and that overall they have definitely aided in my recovery. But, I do believe there is a time where your metal health is stable enough that reliance on a drug that alters your reality may not be necessary. After 4 years of being on SSRI’s I believed that I had reached this point and wanted to challenge myself to see if I could manage my mental state in other ways. I began talking to my physiatrist and we made a plan to reduce my dose slowly and taper off my SSRI. First of all, I am extremely thankful that I went through this process under the supervision of a trained professional and do not believe I would have had such a successful experience if I had tried on my own or had stopped taking pills cold “tofurkey”. That being said, it was a difficult process and I am still coming out the other side. I hope my story will help any of you going through similar processes. I find it helpful to remember that things often get a little worse or harder before they get better.   Weeks 1 – 4 At this stage I reduced from 100mg – 12.5mg dropping the dose each week. I really didn’t notice any big changes in my mood or outlook on life. I didn’t feel more anxious, stressed or sad and my night sweats stopped! This was a huge bonus for me as night sweats due to SSRI’s had prevented me from having a good night sleep for the past 4 years. I also found that I could feel my emotions more. On numerous occasions that month I laughed so hard I cried, which was something that hadn’t happened in a while.
Getting the giggles with my best friend after recently stopping SSRI's

Getting the giggles with my best friend after recently stopping SSRI's

Weeks 4-6 These were the first two weeks I was off SSRI’s all together. The drugs were probably still in my system at a low dose but definitely much lower than before. I was fine for the most part during this time. A little sad for no reason, and restless, but overall content and proud that I was officially off medication. I practiced taking it easy on myself over these weeks and trying to see the bigger picture rather than dwelling on the feelings of sadness. It helped to remind myself that everyone feels sad sometimes.   Weeks 6 – 10 This is when it hit me. The feelings of anxiety crept up and engulfed me in a huge way. I would lie awake at night with constant random words and picture running through my head. Nothing made sense. I was foggy in school and felt like I was watching myself live my life rather than living it. This feeling of dissociating really scared me as I felt like I had no control over my mind and body. I had feelings of wanting to rip off my skin, as I felt so uncomfortable in my own body. I had forgotten how bad my anxiety was, as the SSRI’s really had been masking it all these years. I called my mom in tears on numerous occasions due to the fear of having a panic attack or the realization that maybe I want ready for this and that maybe I still needed the SSRI’s to keep my brain stable. I then had a very motivating talk with my therapist who explained what I was experiencing to me in the best way. She said that the SSRI’s I had been taking were equivalent to meditating for 3 hours a day for my anxiety levels and that I couldn’t possibly take away this drug and not replace it with another form of treatment. This shocked me as I had assumed that I would be able to stop the medication and move on with my life free from anxiety. But through this conversation I realized that this is going to be something I will have to deal with my whole life and that I just need to find different ways to manage my anxiety now that I do not have the help of the drugs.
Finding new ways to manage my anxiety while hiking in New Zealand

Finding new ways to manage my anxiety while hiking in New Zealand

Weeks 10 and onward After week 10 I had developed numerous ways to cope with my anxiety while being a busy junior in college, balancing school, work, friends, family and other hobbies. I have developed numerous strategies (stay tuned for the next post- in which I will share my favorites!) to help maintain calm and manage my daily stress. I have not had a serious incidence of anxiety since week 10 and am able to assess my levels throughout the day in order to adjust my schedule and minimize my anxiety. I honestly never thought I would get to this point, during weeks 7 and 8 I was even considering getting back on the medication and putting this whole thing into the too-hard box. But now, looking back on it, I am glad that I pushed through. I think I was ready to see what my mind was like without being altered and I was in such a good place in my recovery that I could finally use all of the tools I have learned to actually manage my anxiety on my own. Being off SSRI’s is empowering as I now feel like I am in control and capable of anything.   A Challenge for you this week We all have some coping strategies that we know in our hearts are not the best thing for us. For example drinking at night in order to relax after a hard day, or working out obsessively to reduce stress. This is also how I view the SSRI medication I was on. I challenge you this week to try a new, more authentic, coping strategy instead of relying on a quick fix that is habitual to you. Instead of using a beer to relax, try reading a book or going for an after dinner walk. The options are endless and I know you will feel better in the long run. Have an amazing week!! Robin