Neuroscience, Antidepressants And Talk Therapy

Updated March 15, 2023by 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 do not improve with talk therapy and lifestyle changes. 

They may reduce the prevalence of the symptoms associated with these illnesses, but do they make you happy?

Understand Your Antidepressant Options

Antidepressants And Neurotransmitters

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) 

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 control and affects a person's sleep habits, memory, digestion, and appetite. 

Low serotonin levels are generally detected in those experiencing depression. Balancing the amount of serotonin in the brain has been shown to improve depressive symptoms. However, it is also possible for overmedication with serotonin.  

Individuals need to be closely monitored by a medical professional when taking prescription drugs that affect their serotonin levels. This is especially important if an individual is taking any dietary supplements or illegal drugs. The brain can be overloaded with serotonin and can develop  serotonin syndrome, which can be a life-threatening condition. 

Those with too much serotonin in the body may experience the following symptoms:

  • Sweating

  • Confusion

  • Increased blood pressure

  • Increased heart rate

  • Restlessness

  • Headaches

  • Loss of muscle control. 

Extremely high serotonin levels can lead to seizures, unconsciousness, heart palpitations, and a high fever.

Serotonin And Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) 

Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) inhibit the reuptake of both serotonin and norepinephrine. SNRIs are used to relieve depression symptoms, such as irritability and sadness, but it can also be used for nerve pain and anxiety disorders.

Norepinephrine, sometimes referred to as "noradrenaline," is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone responsible for triggering a person's "fight or flight" response.

SNRIs can cause increased blood pressure and heart rate, an 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 the following symptoms:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Migraines

  • Brain fog

  • Memory problems

  • Low blood sugar levels

  • Lack of arousal or interest

  • Restless leg syndrome

  • Fibromyalgia. 


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

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

  • Increased cognitive speed and performance

  • Anxiety

  • Agitation and restlessness

  • Increased libido

  • Insomnia

  • Social-and reward-seeking behaviors and impulses

Norepinephrine-Dopamine Reuptake Inhibitor (NDRI)

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.

Tricyclic Antidepressants 

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 control 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) 

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) 

Serotonin antagonist reuptake inhibitors (SARIs) are technically antidepressant 

medications, but they are generally prescribed for other conditions, such as insomnia and anxiety. These medications resemble SSRIs. 

SARIs 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 SARI medication is trazodone. Though it may not always be prescribed for depression itself, it is commonly used for those experiencing sleep trouble and in conjunction with other antidepressant medications.

Common Mental Health Issues Treated With Antidepressants

There is no one "happy pill" that can change the mood of patients struggling with mental health issues. However, many patients take medications to manage the symptoms. 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 drug, they can check in with you regularly regarding your symptoms and side effects to adjust the dosage if needed.

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, underlying causes of mental health conditions 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 work by itself. 

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

Non-Medicinal Methods Of Improving Mood

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

Diet And Exercise

The first step in feeling better mentally can often be to start feeling better physically. 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. 

For example, regular, low-intensity exercise like walking outside has the capability to reduce mild to moderate depression.

If you're taking care of yourself physically in addition to using antidepressant medications (and often therapy as well), good diet and exercise may be the extra boost you need to balance your neurotransmitters.

A Positive Attitude

Research suggests that smiling triggers a release of 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 can 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 may work for some, people with more prominent symptoms and overwhelming anxieties can be 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. 

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 mental health condition. 

If you are interested in seeking professional counseling for your concerns, or would like to speak to a trained professional about your mental health symptoms, BetterHelp is here for you.

BetterHelp has mental health professionals available through an online therapy platform that can be accessed from your computer or phone in 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.

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 and available 24/7.


Overall, antidepressants are a great tool to improve your mental health symptoms. When we understand how antidepressants affect neurotransmitters in the brain, we can make a more informed decision on our own treatment plan. In tandem with talk therapy, antidepressants can make a great difference and can help you lead a healthier and happier life.

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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