Do Antidepressants Make You Happy?
When depression comes around, it can really feel like happiness is out of reach. Depression is like that, which is why a lot of turn to antidepressants to help bring us a little closer to feeling better.
Do antidepressants make you happy? Is there anything else that can help when we feel stuck?
What is Depression?
While we all feel “down” from time to time, and depression is when those feelings persist daily for at least two weeks. Also referred to as “clinical depression” or “depressive disorder,” depression is ultimately a mood disorder.
It is known as a mood disorder, just like anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder, because, while it does affect the body, it mostly affects the mood and mental health. It causes symptoms that are distressing to people because they can drastically affect how you live your daily life and the ways you think, feel, and handle things (like sleeping, working, or eating).
Depression must be diagnosed by a qualified health professional, usually a primary care physician or a therapist. This is generally done by talking with you and taking stock of your symptoms, as well as having you fill out a few surveys to quantify your depression.
They look at many of the common symptoms of depression, including:
- Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or emptiness
- Irritability, frustration, or angry outbursts, especially over small matters
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, like hobbies or sex
- Sleep problems, either sleeping too little or too much
- Lack of energy, like normally easy tasks taking much more effort
- Restlessness, anxiety, or agitation
- Trouble concentrating or thinking, remembering things
- Recurrent suicidal ideation, either passive or active
- Unexplained physical issues, like pain or headaches
- Feeling worthless or fixating on previous failures
- Slow thinking or moving
- Weight changes, either gain or loss
If your doctor thinks you may have depression, they will likely refer you to a mental health specialist to help you make a plan of action in terms of what steps to take next, such as starting antidepressants.
Are There Different Types of Depression?
Yes, there are two types of depression commonly diagnosed: major depression and persistent depressive disorder (also known as dysthymia).
Major depression involves having depressive symptoms for most of the day, almost every day of the week for at least two weeks straight. Those symptoms interfere with the ability to sleep, work, eat, study, and generally enjoy life. Someone with major depression may only have one episode during their lifetime, or may have multiple bouts of it.
Persistent depressive disorder, on the other hand, is when those same symptoms last for at least two years. The severity of the depression may vary from mild to severe, but are always present.
There are also a few “subtypes” of depression: perinatal, seasonal affective disorder (or SAD), and psychotic depression. These occur under specific circumstances. For instance, perinatal depression is depression that occurs during pregnancy or just after (called postpartum depression). Psychotic depression is depression with the added symptoms of having false beliefs known as delusions, or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there, known as hallucinations.
Why Does Depression Happen?
Research on the exact reasons behind depression is ongoing. So far, what we know is that it is likely a combination of a few different factors -- biological, environmental, genetic, and psychological. More women than men are affected.
Our brains are incredibly complex, taking millions of different chemical reactions to create the way that we perceive our life to be. That’s why no two cases of depression are the same, and the treatment will never be a one size fits all situation.
A few different areas of the brain have been specifically identified as being related to our mood: the amygdala (which can get overactive in those with anxiety or depression), the hippocampus (which tends to be smaller in those with depression and serves as the center of our “fear” response), and the thalamus (links sensory to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences).
Certain diseases may also play a part in depressive symptoms. In fact, between 10 to 15% of people with depression have developed it as the result of either a medication side effect or a medical illness. Thyroid imbalances (hyper- and hypothyroid, especially) are most closely linked, as are heart disease, multiple sclerosis, nutritional deficiencies, certain viruses (HIV, hepatitis) and immune disorders like lupus.
There are other risk factors as well:
- Personality traits like low self-esteem, pessimism, and tendency to self-blame
- Traumatic events, like abuse, death, or relationship issues
- Being a member of the LGBTQ community
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- History of other mood disorders
While none of those factors are a guarantee that depression will develop, they do put people at higher risk.
Do Antidepressants Really Make You Happy?
It’s important that everyone understands that happiness, as a concept, is incredibly difficult to really define. Everyone experiences happiness in a different way, and different things will make different people “happy.” In order to understand if antidepressants can really make you happy, you have to decide what happiness means to you.
There are different types of antidepressants available, and each works in a slightly different way. Overall, though, they all ultimately target the same part of the brain: neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in the brain that communicate messages back and forth between neurons. Specifically, antidepressants act on the neurotransmitters that help to regulate the mood (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in most cases).
Here are a few different types of antidepressants:
- SSRIs: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, work to increase the amount of serotonin in the brain and stop it from being processed out. Used generally for moderate to severe depressive symptoms. Example - Prozac (fluoxetine)
- SNRIs: Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, works the same as SSRIs but also includes norepinephrine. Examples - Effexor (venlafaxine) and Cymbalta (duloxetine)
- MAOIs: Monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Examples - Marplan (isocarboxazid) and Nardil (phenelzine)
- Tricyclic/tetracyclic antidepressants: Examples - Pamelor (nortriptyline) and Tofranil (imipramine)
- “Atypical” antidepressants: Examples - Wellbutrin (bupropion) and Remeron (mirtazapine).
No matter which depression medication (if any) you try, it usually takes about 4 - 6 weeks to really start to notice an improvement. But most people say that antidepressants themselves don’t make them happy. They can simply help to balance the chemicals in the brain that can make it more difficult to enjoy life, so that you can learn what it takes to make yourself happy.
What Else Can I Do For My Depression?
If antidepressants aren’t an option for you, there are still a lot of options to help make things better. There are other things that you can do that are more natural and holistic that may also help you manage your symptoms without medication.
Supplements are one of the best options out there. Not only are they made from natural products that can boost your mood and help support overall mental health and wellness, they also tend to work quickly and effectively.* Adaptogens like Rhodiola Rosea alongside amino acids like L-Theanine have both scientific and anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness. They’re well worth a try, and they have less side effects combined than many prescription meds on their own.
Exercise can also be incredibly effective for both depression and anxiety. Even just a few minutes of exercise can be enough to trigger a rush of “feel good” chemicals known as endorphins. When endorphins are released, they can reduce pain and raise mood.
Not only that, but exercise can also help you feel more physically healthy, which can increase self esteem and feelings of self worth. It’s also an excellent distraction technique, encouraging you to get out of the house, out of your head, and into your body.
Dietary changes are another way to help manage your depression. Often, many of the helpful products found in supplements meant to help with anxiety and depression can also be obtained through food. Focusing on healthy, whole foods like green, leafy vegetables, eggs, salmon, green tea, and bananas can help support your immune system and counter any vitamin and mineral deficiencies you may have that could be affecting your overall wellness and how you feel everyday.
And finally, there are not enough good words that we can say about therapy. Even people who aren’t currently going through intense times of stress or struggling with mood disorders can benefit from seeking out therapy. A good therapist can help you to develop healthy coping mechanisms, decide if medication is right for you, and just generally listen to you as you get the bad things out of your head. Having a neutral party be there for you, without judgement or partiality, is essential to helping you work out any triggers, trauma, or anything else you may be going through.
While depression can be tough and might make you feel like you’re stuck in a hole, know that there’s always tools available to help you climb back out. Antidepressants can help in a lot of cases, as can supplementation, changes in diet, therapy, and increased exercise.
So, whatever you may be going through, know that it does get better, and with a little proactivity in giving your mental wellness the fighting chance it needs, things may get better a lot sooner than you think.
*FDA Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.