Attention: Everyone who is on (or is considering using) antidepressants.

By Maggie O'Neill
December 30, 2019
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For many with depression and anxiety, medication is a godsend. Antidepressants—typically in the form of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SSNRIs)—work by balancing the chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters, some of which affect your moods and emotions.

But, like any medication, antidepressants can also have side effects like nausea, weight gain, and fatigue, though they're often temporary. One thing many don't realize, however, is that going off of antidepressants can also cause side effects.

Technically, this phenomenon is called antidepressant withdrawal, or antidepressant discontinuation syndrome, and the symptoms usually include irritability, anxiety, and feeling like you have the flu, Philip R. Muskin, MD, secretary of the American Psychiatric Association and professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, previously told Health. One other unusual symptom of going off your antidepressants? A phenomenon called "brain zaps."

Wait, what are brain zaps?

Brain zaps isn't necessarily the technical name for this phenomenon, but it's the one that has stuck, Brian Barnett, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. "People used to call them electrical shocks [or] brain shivers, but it seems like brain zaps have taken over the terminology," he says.

Essentially, people get brain zaps—which reportedly feel like "an electrical sensation in the brain"—after they stop the use of antidepressants, says Dr. Barnett, but the science on them is still a little fuzzy. That's because brain zaps weren't really recognized by the medical community until the late 1990s, says Dr. Barnett.

“We don’t know a lot about what causes this,” admits Dr. Barnett. “It’s something that has not been studied extensively.” However, he explains that there’s some speculation that brain zaps might be triggered when a person (who has recently stopped taking antidepressants) moves their eyes from side to side. Research published in 2018 in the journal The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders backs up this claim, highlighting the “apparent association of brain zaps with lateral eye movements.”

Because brain zaps haven’t been extensively studied, we don’t know how many people they affect. “It’s somewhat of an unclear picture: how common these things are,” says Dr. Barnett. (Though, for context, nearly 13 percent of Americans over age 12 took antidepressants as recently as 2014, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2017.)

That said, antidepressant withdrawal symptoms in general are quite common. According to a 2019 review in the UK journal Addictive Behaviors, as many as half of people taking antidepressants will have some withdrawal symptoms in general when they stop taking them or lower the dose of their meds. And half of those folks—amounting to millions, the BBC reported—will rate those symptoms as severe.

So, is there any way to avoid brain zaps while discontinuing antidepressants?

Brain zaps are common among patients who suddenly stop taking antidepressants (or forget to take them for a few days), says Dr. Barnett—that suggests it's worthwhile to slowly taper off your medications, and do so under the supervision of a doctor.

But even if you do start experiencing brain zaps after you stop taking antidepressants, the problem shouldn’t plague you for too long. While some patients have reported experiencing brain zaps for years, Dr. Barnett says, “I would say [for] the vast majority of people, they typically resolve” within a month. And brain zaps shouldn’t hinder your ability to function or work, seeing as they only last for a millisecond or up to one full second “based on the way they’re described,” says Dr. Barnett.

For now though, it seems like much more research needs to be done on brain zaps for doctors to fully understand why they happen and what can be done to prevent them. But if you've experienced brain zaps, are worried about discontinuing your medication for the risk of brain zaps, or are hesitant to start a medication for the same reason, your best bet is to talk to your doctor to figure out a discontinuation plan (or treatment plan) that's best for you.

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