Do antidepressants make you emotionally numb?
Do you feel emotionally numb after taking antidepressants? It's because some antidepressants also numb reward sensations (pleasure) while inhibiting the painful depressive feelings. It's a common side effect of SSRI antidepressants.
But really, there's nothing to worry about. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are just one out of many types of antidepressants. However, they're widely used due to how effective they are for treating depression. As the name denotes, SSRIs target serotonin, the chemical in the brain commonly dubbed the "happy" hormone.
One of the common side effects of this type of antidepressant is a numb feeling. The patient may not feel pleasure as much as before, just like they won't feel as depressed. Some also report not reaching orgasm quickly anymore. So if you have this emotionally numb feeling after taking antidepressants, chances are it was an SSRI you used.
How do SSRI antidepressants cause numb feelings?
Researchers noticed how up to half of all patients on SSRI antidepressants report feeling numb, so they knew there had to be something happening in the brain.
On studying 66 participants, the researchers found that SSRIs do not affect cognitive function in any way. The drugs did not affect attention and memory or cognition that involve our emotions.
But this is what they discovered:
Patients on SSRI antidepressants feel numb because the drug reduces reinforcement sensitivity, that is, our sensitivity to positive feedback, which you can also call rewards or pleasure.
How did the researchers find out?
They engaged the participants on a test by placing them into two groups. The first group was given an SSRI antidepressant, while the second was given a placebo. All participants were exposed to the same two stimuli, A and B.
If a participant chooses A, they would receive a reward 4 out of 5 times. If they choose B, they would only receive a reward once out of 5 times. Nobody was told this rule. But of course, you would expect that, after observing the pattern for some time, anybody would start choosing more of A to get more rewards.
But it wasn't so for the participants on SSRI antidepressants. They didn't significantly learn the pattern because they were less sensitive to the rewards. It was as though nothing of pleasure was coming their way. They were emotionally blunt. But the other group on placebo learned to choose the rewarding option more.
This show that, while SSRIs are very effective for blunting the painful feelings that lead to depression, unfortunately, they may also be detracting from the feelings that give us pleasure as well.
Why it matters
Emotional blunting is very common with SSRI antidepressants, with about 40-60% of users reporting the side effect. But then, not every user will experience this side effect.
We have talked about pharmacogenetic testing and how it can be used to offer the best antidepressants for each unique individual. For example, the test can reveal whether a patient will feel emotionally blunt after using the antidepressant or not.
Lastly, SSRIs are some of the best antidepressants available and are recommended for severe or persistent cases. So if you have been feeling numb after taking antidepressants, you can use a different type of antidepressant if your depression is not too severe. Always speak with your provider when choosing antidepressant medications.
More on the research here.