Understanding Myths And Facts: Do Antidepressants Make You Happy?

Updated October 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Antidepressants are commonly prescribed to treat mental health conditions that impair a person's ability to function in their daily life. They also treat the symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders that otherwise are not improving with just therapy and lifestyle changes. They may reduce the prevalence of the symptoms associated with these illnesses, but you may be wondering, “Do they make you happy?"

Understanding Antidepressants And How They Function

Understand Your Antidepressant Options To Manage Symptoms

Antidepressants are medications specifically designed to target the levels of certain chemicals within the brain to restore balance. These primarily include serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. The type of antidepressant used determines the exact chemicals and neurotransmitters to be affected by the medication.

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common class of antidepressants. SSRIs function by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, inhibiting the reuptake of said chemical, and allowing more of it to be available for use. This type of antidepressant is generally very effective in treating moderate to severe depression, especially when a chemical imbalance is contributing to an individual's symptoms. Serotonin is thought to be responsible for a good portion of mood regulation and affects a person's sleep habits, memory, digestion, and appetite. Low serotonin levels are generally detected in those experiencing depression, and balancing the amount of serotonin in the brain has been shown to improve symptoms. However, it is also possible for there to be too much of a good thing. Individuals need to be closely monitored by a medical professional when taking prescription drugs that affect their serotonin levels, especially along with any dietary supplements or illegal drug use, to be sure that they do not overload their brain with the chemical and develop serotonin syndrome, which is a very serious and life-threatening condition. Those with too much serotonin in the body may experience sweating, confusion, increased blood pressure and heart rate, restlessness, digestive symptoms, headaches, and a loss of muscle control. Extremely high serotonin levels can lead to seizures, unconsciousness, heart palpitations, and a high fever; at this point, the condition becomes life-threatening and needs to be addressed and treated immediately.
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) inhibit the reuptake of both serotonin and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine sometimes referred to as "noradrenaline," is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone responsible for the changes when a person's "fight or flight" response is triggered. It causes an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, increase in blood glucose levels, and is also responsible for causing panic attacks during quick and intense norepinephrine spikes. Those with low levels of norepinephrine may experience depression, anxiety, migraines, brain fog, lethargy, memory problems, low blood sugar levels, sleep issues, lack of arousal or interest, and even conditions such as restless leg syndrome and fibromyalgia. All of these symptoms and the overall levels of norepinephrine naturally produced within your body can be worsened by poor nutrition, chronic stress, and taking certain medications. Norepinephrine levels that are too high can be caused by improper medication dosages, obesity, and tumors on the adrenal glands that regulate these hormones. Symptoms of excessive norepinephrine in an individual can be indicated by increased levels of anxiety, high blood pressure, headaches, heart palpitations, and increased sweating.
  • Bupropion is an antidepressant that functions as a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (NDRI). This means that it only affects the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine available for use and has no effect on serotonin levels within the body. It is prescribed both for treating depression and aiding in smoking cessation due to its effects on blocking nicotinic receptors. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter nicknamed the "feel-good hormone," and it is responsible for affecting mood, memory, movement, and other factors of our wellbeing. A deficiency of dopamine can be caused by multiple factors, including certain pre-existing health conditions, an unhealthy diet, drug abuse, and even obesity. Low levels of dopamine have been associated with muscle spasms, tremors, and cramps, as well as general aches and pain. Lower levels can also cause stiffness, acid reflux, difficulty eating, difficulty swallowing, constipation, trouble balancing, trouble focusing, sleep issues, mood swings, lethargy, fatigue, a lack of motivation, low sex drive, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, delusions, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free, confidential, and available 24/7.

Though it does not cause certain illnesses on its own, a deficiency of dopamine is often associated with depression, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and psychosis. Some of the symptoms of high levels of dopamine include increased pleasure (hence it being the "feel-good" hormone), increased cognitive speed and performance, anxiety, agitation and restlessness, high levels of energy, increased libido, mania, insomnia, paranoia, an increase in productivity and organized thought, social- and reward-seeking behaviors and impulses, or stress brought on by a dopamine-triggered release of adrenaline.

  • Tricyclic antidepressants are another class of antidepressants that function very similarly to SNRIs, blocking the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine. However, they differ in that they also block acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter affecting pain response in the body, muscle contractions, and the regulation of certain sleep functions. This type of medication is used for treating depression but may also be prescribed for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Some off-label uses include reducing the symptoms of chronic pain, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, bulimia, anorexia nervosa, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and panic disorder. Though less commonly prescribed compared to SSRIs and SNRIs, tricyclic antidepressants are generally used when these other medications are not proving to be beneficial in relieving symptoms.
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are the very first antidepressant ever created and have since been replaced with much safer options (such as those mentioned above) with fewer side effects. Monoamine oxidase is an enzyme that assists in removing serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine from the brain. MAOIs function by preventing the action of the monoamine oxidase and, therefore, allow for more of the chemicals to be available for use within the body. Due to MAOIs also affecting other factors within the brain and the digestive tract, these types of antidepressants are prone to causing numerous side effects compared to the other classes and often even require dietary restrictions to take safely. They also have a high risk of dangerous side effects occurring when mixed with other medications.
  • Serotonin antagonist reuptake inhibitors (SARIs) are technically antidepressant medications, but they are generally prescribed for other conditions, such as insomnia and anxiety. These medications are similar to SSRIs. They prevent the reuptake of serotonin in the brain, but, more specifically, they target the 5HT2a receptor responsible for serotonin reuptake and block the transporter protein that allows this to occur. The most common medication in this category is trazodone. Though it may not always be prescribed for depression itself, it is commonly used for those experiencing sleep troubles and in conjunction with other antidepressant medications.

Common Mental Health Issues Treated With Antidepressants

Antidepressants are prescribed most often for treating the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and major depressive disorder. However, due to the chemical makeup of the brain and how these affect various factors in a person's psychological and mental health experiences, antidepressants may also be prescribed to treat the following conditions:

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Panic Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Severe phobias
  • Insomnia
  • Eating Disorders
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Non-neuropathic chronic pain conditions
  • Bedwetting (in children)

It is essential to consult your doctor or a mental health professional before starting medication. When trying a new medication, they can check in with you regularly regarding your symptoms and any side effects you may be experiencing and adjust the dosage if needed. It is imperative that you take medication as prescribed by your doctor and do not suddenly stop or adjust your medication regimen independently.

Antidepressants Used With Therapy

For the greatest potential success in treatment and recovery from mental health conditions, antidepressants are often used alongside therapy and counseling. Medications may be capable of reducing symptoms and allowing a person to function better in their daily lives. Still, the underlying causes often need to be addressed to help individuals become happier, healthier, and more satisfied with their lives. Taking anti-depressant medication alone will not always do the trick, and seeking the help of a licensed, trained, and experienced professional can assist in addressing underlying causes and improving the overall treatment process.

Understand Your Antidepressant Options To Manage Symptoms

Non-Medicinal Methods Of Improving Mood

There are methods for improving mood without prescribed medications. For some, these options will greatly help out with their particular set of symptoms.

Diet And Exercise

The first step in feeling better mentally can often be to start feeling better physically. Being sure to address any health problems with your physician ensures that you'll be in the best possible condition to work on your mental state and alleviate any underlying causes that may contribute to a lack of energy and joy in your life.

Once physical health conditions have been ruled out, your mood and overall well-being can significantly improve with a balanced diet and regular physical exercise. Neither of these has to be pushed to the extremes, but even small changes can lead to signs of improvement for some individuals. For example, regular, low-intensity exercise like walking outside has reduced mild to moderate depression.

If you're taking care of yourself as well as possible and the symptoms of anxiety, sadness, or depression still linger, adding in antidepressant medications (and often therapy as well) may be just what you need to get that extra boost in adjusting the chemicals in your brain and resolving the rest of your symptoms.

A Positive Attitude

Does smiling make you happy? Research suggests that smiling triggers the release of some of the “feel good” hormones discussed earlier, like serotonin and dopamine. "Positive Activity Interventions" are a less formal idea of treatment for depression that focuses on making intentional thoughts and behaviors of a positive nature a regular occurrence in your daily life. Gratitude, optimism, participating in random acts of kindness and being kind to yourself fall into this mindset that some use to alleviate symptoms. Increased positivity has been linked to building healthy relationships, careers, and other goals one may set out to accomplish. It may not be appropriate for all individuals, but it may work well alone or in conjunction with medicinal or therapeutic treatment for some.

Though this form of "I think; therefore I am" regarding happiness may work for some, people with more prominent symptoms and overwhelming anxieties can be even further harmed by trying to force positive emotions instead of acknowledging their fearful and depressed true state. Forced positivity is considered a form of "self-deception" in these cases. This can worsen symptoms, as the brain takes on even higher stress levels by trying to be forced into doing something that it reasons does not even make any sense, alongside all of the very harsh conditions of reality it is already experiencing.

Convincing yourself that you're truly happy in the face of some serious symptoms and life events is similar to suppressing significant mental health conditions that need treatment to avoid worsening. This is especially true in the cases of those with naturally low self-esteem. Those who may already think better about themselves outside of their depressive symptoms are more easily brought back up to their natural state of feeling good about both themselves and their lives and futures.

Some people function better by dwelling on the negative, worrying, and therefore overthinking and finding resolutions to their fears (which helps them have a better sense of preparedness in the face of conflict), and using negative aspects to better themselves and prepare for the conflict the worst. People with chronic anxiety have been shown, due to this constant rumination, to be better at making quick and efficient decisions and handling catastrophic situations compared to those who are generally happier and not having to deal with such concerns all the time.

Relationships And Antidepressants

Having a support system can be key to navigating the ups and downs of life. Having healthy relationships with your friends, family, and a significant other can impact how you're able to deal with negative emotions and overcome the trials everyone eventually has to face at some point. Everyone needs someone that they can put their trust in and confide in when times get rough. Holding in all of your worries and negative thoughts only worsens and brings on even more stress as you isolate yourself from those around you. This is why talk therapy is such an effective tool for mild depression up to more severe mental health conditions.

Having people or even pets around you to turn to in times of sadness or crisis alleviates the beliefs of being entirely alone, which often amplifies the symptoms of depression and other mental health concerns. These close loved ones are available to offer you comfort, a voice of reason, a shoulder to lean on, or sometimes just an ear to hear you out and help you express yourself by venting.

As beneficial as a good support system and healthy relationships may be, they may not solve everything if your symptoms of depression and anxiety are significant. However, receiving professional treatment via therapy or medications is only further benefited by having those at home to love and support you through the process of getting back on your feet.

Seeking Further Help

Prescription medications may or may not be the appropriate fit for every person struggling with feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, or anxiety. Suppose you are curious to find out more information on how medications may benefit your particular situation. In that case, are interested in seeking professional counseling for your concerns, or would like to speak to a trained professional about all of these factors and what your best options for the next steps may be, BetterHelp has professionals available via its online therapy resources that can be online on your computer or phone from the comfort of your own home and on whatever schedule best suits your needs and lifestyle.

A literature review regarding online counseling established that it has a similar impact as traditional, face-to-face counseling. A 2007 study revealed no differences in effectiveness between the two methods. Connecting to a therapist online or via phone eliminates the commute and lessens the scheduling hassle. Another benefit is that it is generally more affordable as well. A couple of user testimonials are provided below to give you firsthand insight into how others managing similar experiences benefit from BetterHelp’s online counseling platform.

User Testimonials

“I suffer from depression, and this year anxiety popped up as well. My anxiety was new to me, and it was scary going through it, but Elizabeth Cupo helped me understand and strengthen my techniques for getting through them. We talked about the causes of my anxiety and walked through possible techniques. I appreciate the help. It brought some sense of control to handle my problems.”

“I have had many lovely and well-wishing counselors in the past, but they were never able to help me be my best self and put me on a positive path to help me live my best life like Ms. Maloy has helped me do!!!!! I honestly do not know where I would be today if I did not meet Ms. Maloy; I truly believe she saved my life from spiraling out of control!!!! Before I started my sessions with Ms. Maloy, I used to think I was broken beyond repair, that something was wrong with me, and I just was not “right.” I used to think I wasn’t worthy of good things happening to me because I was so broken, hopeless and because something was wrong with me. All of those negative thoughts and words I used to describe myself were banished from my brain, thinking, heart, and soul in the very 1st session!!!! She has the right words to say to make you feel safe, calm, and at peace. I am never afraid to tell her anything or be honest because I know she will never judge me! That is important because I have lived through some very scary traumas, and she is always there to help me work through them peacefully. She has provided me with so many healthy and honestly helpful coping skills to help me deal with the severe traumatic events I have had to endure. She even gave me amazing coping techniques on what to do if I wake up in a panic attack from sleeping (which is so scary and used to happen a lot). She truly made me believe that I am not broken but perfectly made just the way God wanted me to be. She made me love myself again and reminded me that God’s love is unconditional, and He loves me too!! She helped me change my whole perspective from thinking I was a pathetic loser to reminding me I am a winner!! I am beginning to remember who I am and feel like myself again. On top of all my mental health suffering, I have developed several severe and very scary autoimmune illnesses within the past year! These illnesses made it impossible to do things I love, like yoga, for example. Ms. Maloy found me an alternative that I could do with my severe physical limitations.........Tai Chi!!! I now practice tai chi every day, and it is truly bringing me joy again! I thought that I would never have any joy participating in any activity again! She has even helped me devise different schedules, so the overwhelming feeling of “I can’t even do it” or “it is all too much” has completely gone away!! Ms. Maloy and her wonderful and peaceful methods have made a BetterHelp patient for life; so long as she is my counselor, I can only see my life continue to improve regardless of my physical ailments! Thank you, Ms. Maloy!!!!!”

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