When we’re feeling hopeless and helpless due to a bout of depression, medication may be helpful to give us that mood lift that, somehow, we just can’t get on our own.
In this article I explain exactly how medication helps depression so you can decide if it’s something you’d like to explore.
I will also share with you something to do whilst waiting for the antidepressants to begin working.
How Antidepressant Medication Works
Depression medications are called antidepressants.
Antidepressants are based on the idea that they work by balancing chemicals in our brain called neurotransmitters that affect mood and emotions.
The indication is that this medication can help improve our mood, help us sleep better, and increase our appetite and concentration.
The brain uses different chemicals as messengers to communicate with other parts of itself and the nervous system. These chemical messengers are called neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are released and received by the brain's nerve cells called neurons. Neurons are constantly communicating with each other by way of exchanging neurotransmitters.
As this communication system is essential to all of the brain's functions, I guess the reason why I felt foggy headed when I was depressed was because these brain messengers are not working properly.
It’s the imbalance of three neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which have been central to the development of antidepressant medication.
It’s been assumed that depression is the result of these three chemicals being unbalanced in the brain. The evidence is not iron clad because it’s almost impossible to measure the level of chemicals in a person's brain.
However, antidepressant medication is known to act upon these three chemicals and their receptors.
How This Helps Depression
When we’ve experienced depression for some time, perhaps six months or more, it can seem that nothing and no one can help. But, antidepressant medication may help jump-start our mood and give us the boost we need to get over the worst of the depression symptoms, particularly lethargy and hopelessness.
Once we’ve got that ‘leg up’ we may find it easier to start doing things for ourselves in terms of getting some support, more exercise and eating better food.
Studies[i] show that the more the severity of our depression, the more effective the antidepressant. This is great news for those of us who have suffered form depression that has – literally – pole axed our lives.
It’s good to know there’s some extra help at the doctor’s should we need it.
How Long Will It Take Before The Medication Helps Depression?
While we want to feel better immediately, the more realistic time span is 2-12 weeks.
This can be devastating news as Kim explained,
“I went to the doctor and as he handed me the script for Zoloft he said, ‘It will take up to 12 weeks to work, can I trust you not to kill yourself in that time?’ No, I said.”
It does take time for the medication to work and researchers don’t really know why it takes so long.
They know that antidepressants act upon the three main brain chemicals and their receptors. But they’re not clear on the time lag and think that the effects of the antidepressants maybe due to other reactive changes as a result in altered brain chemical levels.
It’s not ideal for us that the experts are not completely sure why the antidepressants take so long to work. However. As long as we know that in advance we can ask for help and support in the first few weeks of staring the medication.
The Upside Of Asking For Medication
The other side to this is that we finally sought help.
Many people don’t ask for help. One study[ii] suggests that only a minority of participants with depression received any treatment: 1 in 5 people in high-income and 1 in 27 in low-/lower-middle-income countries.
Of course not getting any support for depression feeds the depression by keeping us isolated and reaffirming our negative thinking that no one cares about us.
So the fact that we’ve sought help is positive because we will be exposed to other support agencies who understand about depression and, in theory, will be able to help us find on-going treatment which could help us – not only deal with the symptoms of depression – but also tackle some of the root causes.
I say in theory because resources are limited for both individuals and national health services and, unfortunately, we can’t always get the perfect care that we need. So this is when medication helps depression by giving us that boost or ‘tide me over’ allowing us to get a better grip on life.
Something We Can Do Until The Antidepressants Start Working
So there are things we can do for ourselves when our depression symptoms stabilise like getting some sunshine, exercise and nourishing ourselves with good food. There’s plenty of advice on my other blogs to explain how to go about this.
However, I would like to share with you one thing that helped me recover from depression, which is simply to look at it from a different angle.
Seeing depression another way: how it can help us
When all else fails, depression can feel like a comfort blanket. At least we know what it is and we know that when we’re in a full bout of depression we can give up on ourselves.
If you’ve suffered from depression for a long time, it can become a ‘default position’. It can seem comforting to return to that hopeless, helpless place when life feels too hard and messy.
When I was in this state I understood the mess I was getting myself into when I gave up and sank back into the pit of depression; but there were benefits . . . better the devil you know, I thought! And because ‘hopelessness’ is one of the pillars of depression, I also felt hopeless about ever recovering from it, which kept me locked in the depression cycle.
But what if the depression you’re suffering can actually help you? In the same way that physical pain signals an injury which needs to be treated, depression can signal some life changes which need to be put in place. If you feel your knee is hurting it can mean you need to take a break from your running workout and rest up until it recovers.
Likewise, suffering from depression can mean that something in your life isn’t working or that you need to take a step back and re-assess what needs to be addressed. What important advantages could the depression be conferring?
Being depressed certainly backs you into a corner but here you may also discover solitude, time and space. It might be taking you away from distressing or futile situations and allowing a little breathing space. This pause offers you a chance to take a fresh view on life and perhaps prevents you from making rash decisions or gives you time to re-assess relationships.
Certainly, for me, tackling the depression took me to a new place. Obviously I felt better because I recovered from the depressive symptoms, but the process also transformed me. The depression signaled that something was seriously wrong and needed working through and then changing.
I was able to break out of a mold that had been imposed on me. It helped me discover who I truly was, which added much more meaning to my life. From the pit of depression I was able to find that deep space which increased my creativity and purpose. I could see that I wasn’t a failure but I’d taken on too much and something inside said ‘enough is enough’.
The depression looked after me while I was able to explore the reasons why I was trying to fight the world. I could have swept the turmoil under the carpet and carried on trying to ignore it but it was the depression that helped me to lie low. It taught me to take care of the important things in life – good relationships, self-love, living in today, and developing compassion.
I became more honest and truthful, especially to myself. I had to find courage to face some of these life truths, like how much I wanted to control those around me (probably the hardest bit of the journey) and also how much I relied on others to give me a sense of self-worth – such a painful place to be!
So, while we wait for help, either with medication starting to work or, waiting out the therapy appointment, we can’t give up on ourselves. Whilst we know that medication helps depression symptoms, we also know that only we really know what’s going to help us recover.