How do antidepressants work, and how should they make you feel? Learn about how long it takes to see effects
For many people, finding antidepressants that work for them may be a matter of trial and error. Antidepressants work by altering the chemistry inside your brain and are designed to reduce the intensity of depression and anxiety symptoms.
You should be able to experience the following benefits while on antidepressants:
- Improve mood and motivation
- Reduce restlessness and promote better sleep
- Increase appetite and concentration
- Improve self-esteem
- Ability to think more clearly
How long does it take for antidepressants to work?
Antidepressants are not magic pills that solve everything right away from the first dose. Since they work at the neurotransmitter level, it takes time for your brain chemistry to change to the point where it is getting a consistent supply of serotonin and other mood-enhancing chemicals.
This entire process may take 2-3 weeks to complete, with optimal effects being seen at 6 weeks. Some may even take 8 weeks or longer. How soon you see results depends on the severity of your symptoms of depression, mood swings, or anxiety. Your doctor will usually increase the dosage of medications gradually based on your body’s response to the medication.
Even if you start feeling much better, however, your doctor will not stop your treatment. Since mental disorders often come back, antidepressants need to be continued for at least 4-9 months. The duration also depends on whether symptoms change over time and how likely they are to return. Some people may need to use antidepressants for many years.
How effective are antidepressants?
Antidepressants are usually prescribed when psychotherapy or counseling does not work in cases of mild depression. Benefits are more pronounced in cases of moderate to severe depression. According to some studies, 40%-60% of people with moderate to severe depression noticed an improvement in their symptoms within 6-8 weeks.
Since there are a wide variety of antidepressants available, and since each person has unique brain chemistry, it’s difficult to predict how your body will respond to certain medications.
Your doctor will make a prescription based on what they think will be the most effective for you and what your body will likely be able to tolerate. It may take a few different medications before finding one that works the best for you.
What should you remember when taking antidepressants?
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel better right away. Antidepressants take time to work, and patience is the key. If you feel like your symptoms are the same or getting worse, don’t stop taking your medications but inform your doctor. They may adjust your dosage, add another medication, or change your prescription altogether.
If you need to stop taking antidepressants, you will need to taper off gradually over several weeks. Stopping them abruptly can cause moderate to severe side effects, including nausea, restlessness, and more depression. One of the advantages of antidepressants is that unlike many sleeping pills and sedatives, they don’t cause physical dependence or addiction.
When you are on antidepressants, make sure to keep up with your doctor’s appointments. Your physician will need to know how you are doing on the medications and whether there are any side effects.
Medically Reviewed on 7/15/2021
Kajanoja J, Scheinin NM, Karukivi M, Karlsson L, Karlsson H. Is Antidepressant Use Associated With Difficulty Identifying Feelings? A Brief Report. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. Feb 2018;26(1):2-5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29337584/
InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006. Depression: How effective are antidepressants? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK361016/