SSRI withdrawal symptoms can range quite a bit. There are physical symptoms, emotional symptoms, mood symptoms, and bizarre symptoms. One of the more difficult symptoms to deal with are repetitive and recursive thoughts. These are thoughts that keep repeating over and over again in the mind. They can be about anything. Sometimes, they feel like a dark mantra that won’t stop.
I talked to a person in withdrawal who repeated the same sentence for four hours. “If only I could…” It varied a little bit over time, but it didn’t really change for that whole conversation. Repetitive thoughts grip your mind and won’t let go. It’s very hard to break out of the mental cul de sac that they create. Everything you try to replace it with inevitably leads back to the central thought. Usually, the thought is a regret, or a memory. It’s very common to critically review the past in withdrawal. Somehow, the past becomes incredibly important and inescapable. In our society, we grow up believing that the emotional and intellectual parts of the mind are separate. “Mind over matter”, “Walk it off”, “Pick yourself up and go on”. In reality, the intellectual and emotional parts of our minds are two sides of the same coin. You can’t ignore one without damaging the other.
The first thing to do in combating a repetitive thought is to recognize it as one. That seems like an obvious thing, but it’s not as clear in withdrawal. Even irrational thoughts take on a certainty and weight that they wouldn’t normally have. For a “normal” person, the memory of pulling a girl’s hair in kindergarten would be a passing regret. In withdrawal, that regret becomes the centerpiece of an elaborate story about self inadequacy. I was a terrible person for pulling her hair. That has only grown as I have grown, and now I am the result of a lifetime’s worth of regret. That’s the thought process in withdrawal. It sounds remarkably like a diagnostic marker of depression, and it is. That’s why withdrawal is often misdiagnosed as a new or existing condition. The difference is that withdrawal is iatrogenic, caused by the drug, not a condition.
The thing that makes it hard to recognize a repetitive thought in withdrawal is that each step from the original thought feels natural. The progression from the memory of pulling a kindergartener’s hair to a dark assessment of your adult life seems rational and correct. We naturally filter out the more wild connections our minds are capable of making and don’t realize that something’s wrong when that check is missing. In withdrawal, you need to make a conscious effort to moderate thought. That’s not very easy when the thoughts are so persistent.
Breaking the cycle of repetitive thoughts is something that takes practice. Being mindful of your thoughts is a frustrating thing at first. It can feel like you’re just watching as things fall apart in front of you. It’s important to keep trying to control those thoughts, though. It starts with recognizing that a particular chain of thoughts is originating from withdrawal. If you notice that the whole chain of thoughts keeps referring back to a single event to propel it, that is most likely withdrawal related. It’s almost impossible to “discard” a whole chain of thought, but recognizing it can help in dealing with it. Try to focus on something else, something with its own chain, like a story or a game. It may not be in keeping with the societal norm of heroically overcoming a struggle to reach the happy ending, but the goal is to overcome, not to be a hero.