The subtle effects of an SSRI

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One of the things that has puzzled me as my dose of Paxil has gotten lower is the way that old friends marvel at all the changes they see in me.  Even causal, but long time, acquaintances say that I seem like a completely different person.  They’re even people who I haven’t told about my Paxil tapering.  Somehow, I’ve transformed in front of their eyes over the past year.  I haven’t questioned them too closely about how I’ve changed, even though I’m very curious.  To me, I seem exactly the same.  I’ve always been “me”, haven’t I? I keep looking for specific things that I do differently, but they seem like little things.  I don’t interrupt other people’s conversations to say something that just popped into my head anymore.  I think that’s different.  Still, that seems like a small personality change, not something that people would notice immediately.

That changed a bit yesterday.  I had a difficult day at work.  I was configuring two routers in our network to talk to each other for a customer.  The interfaces weren’t built, the NNI was designed on the wrong router, I had to redistribute MPLS routes across two different sections of our edge network.  Suffice to say, it got complicated.  And, it lasted for 14 hours.  By the time I got home, I had only eaten a few candy bars in the previous 36 hours and I was dead tired.  I stuffed a couple cheese sandwiches in my mouth and went to bed.  I had to be back at work 7 hours later.

This morning, I woke up tired and grumpy.  I had a bit of a persecution complex as I showered and watched the DVR from last night.  I shuffled into work and started getting ready for the day.  A friend of mine asked if I was going slomo today.  Everyone else noticed the difference, too.  “Are you ok?” “How late did you stay last night? I left at 10 and you were still here.”

I realized that I was feeling the same way I had felt every day while I was on 40mg/day of Paxil.  I never seemed to get enough sleep, and I was always irritated.  There were long stretches where I would sleep for 12-14 hours a night, and still wake up exhausted.  Every little thing annoyed me.  I didn’t contribute at work, I just went through the motions.  The difference today was that irritated feeling faded away like it would for a normal person.  By the end of the day, I was joking and helping my next door neighbor with a config.  In my Paxil days it would have lingered all day, and I would have gone home much as I had left it, irritated and tired.

I didn’t think yesterday was a good day.  Looking back, it was pretty good.  I got the customer working eventually, and I learned something about the ways that I’ve changed since I started tapering off Paxil.  It turns out, Paxil made me feel like I was working on an intractable problem for 16 hours a day, every day.

Inside the SSRI bunker

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SSRI withdrawal is a notoriously variable thing. For most people, the symptoms vary from day to day, even hour to hour. This variability makes planning a day in withdrawal very difficult and leads to a general fear of the future and an inability to plan ahead because of anxiety about which “me” will show up tomorrow. Withdrawal also breeds a profound desire to withdraw from life and other people. It’s sometimes hard to deal with your own internal state, let alone social interactions.

It’s still important to try to push the boundaries of personal comfort during withdrawal. One of the strange aspects of withdrawal is that it’s very hard to tell when symptoms are improving. Often, the best way to gauge progress is during a social interaction. You may notice that today’s trip to the market didn’t produce as much stress as last week. Even though your internal state may feel the same, having a successful trip outside can show you subtle signs of progress. Getting out can also be a way to “make” progress happen. Powering through an encounter can provide confidence going forward.

Withdrawal is not just an emotional or intellectual problem, though. It’s also an imbalance of neurotransmitters. After having Serotonin levels managed artificially by the SSRI, it takes a while for the brain to find a new balance. serotonin is intimately involved in our emotional state. As much as we would like to believe that we can control our emotional state, our minds are much more complex than that. The mind has intellectual and instinctual elements. It’s important to heal both aspects during withdrawal. Just as you wouldn’t “walk off” a broken leg, you can’t push through some of the symptoms of withdrawal. The broken bone analogy is apt when discussing withdrawal. When recovering from a broken bone, it’s important to exercise to speed healing, but over doing it can actually set back recovery. The same applies to SSRI withdrawal. Pushing the emotional boundaries of withdrawal can speed healing and make for a stronger internal mental state. Likewise, pushing through social interactions that produce a lot of fear or stress can set back recovery.

It’s important to manage stress during withdrawal. It’s hard to apply general principles to it because each person’s tolerance to stress is different. An individual’s stress tolerance can change over time, too. Since withdrawal follows a chaotic pattern, it’s hard to manage. The only way to manage stress is to take it day by day, even interaction by interaction. You may reach your stress limit after one trip to the market. Tomorrow, though, you may be able to go to a movie theatre. Try to be flexible and only retreat when you feel you need to. Don’t hesitate to retreat a bit if you become overwhelmed, but also don’t hesitate to jump out there again.

Memory and Cognition

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There are several theories about how we create memories and how we use those memories to interact with our worlds.  Take a restaurant as an example.  When you think of a restaurant, a fairly specific memory is used to represent restaurants in general.  Now think of a fast food restaurant.  The image changes.  One theory of cognition is that we create lists that represent different interactions.  For example, we have a script for restaurants so we know what to expect when we go to one.  We enter, wait to be seated, order, eat, pay, leave.  The script is modified to account for different types of restaurants.  in the fast food example, waiting to be seated won’t work.  So, we create a new list to account for it.  In that list, we enter, order, pay, eat, leave.  The other theory of cognition is that we store elements of previous encounters and use those to assemble an appropriate mental picture that we can apply to a specific situation.

The way we recall events and integrate them into our minds isn’t as simple as recording them.  The analogues to memory that we have created, hard drives, web sites, etc. record events in a linear way.  Human memory doesn’t record events in the same way.  Instead of remembering an event like a wedding one instant at a time, we record a representation of the event that we can later recall.  This method of remembering can alter the event in our minds in interesting ways.  Each element of an event is stored in different parts of the brain and then reassembled when we recall it.  Each time we remember a wedding, the mind assembles the different parts together to create a new representation of the event.  In essence, we’re recreating the event each time we remember it.

For the wedding example, the ceremony is broken into different elements.  The visuals sounds, smells, and tactile memories are compiled together from different areas of memory to create the memory that we then recall.  The way that the elements are stored allows the mind to free associate those parts with other memories that can then impact the recollection of the whole.  When you recall a wedding, the smell of the flowers can be influenced by other memories that include smells.  A trip to an arboretum can influence the wedding memory in subtle ways.  Discrete elements of the arboretum won’t intrude on the wedding memory, the mind would recognize those parts as being out of place in the wedding memory.  Instead, the sensations and smells of the arboretum can influence the recollection of the wedding.  When the mind assembles the wedding memory, it pulls the smells from the same area that stores the smell memories of the arboretum.  In doing so, the two memory fragments influence each other.  The memory of the arboretum would likewise be influenced by memory fragments from a wedding.

When the mind assembles a memory, it has to free associate within each part of the memory to assemble to whole.  Each sense, smell, touch, sight, sounds, and taste has its own area.  As the mind recalls each sense, other memory fragments can influence how we recall each element of the whole.  This is one of the reasons why eye witness testimony can be problematic.  When the witness tries to assemble the memory of an event, other experiences can influence how that memory is assembled.  Since the mind essentially creates the memory each time it is recalled, that recollection can drift over time.  As other experiences change the memory, a discrete memory can start to change the more we recall it.  That’s why police want to get eye witness testimony when it’s “fresh” and people say that the first impression is usually the right one.  It’s not necessarily true, but it does leave the memory less time to be affected by other experiences and memory fragments.

The list and fragment theories of memory aren’t exclusive to each other.  We could use memory fragments to create the lists dynamically.  The list theory is tempting because that is the way it feels when we go to a place like a restaurant.  We create a script that we expect to follow throughout the whole episode.  How we create the list may be more interesting than the list itself.  In many ways, every memory is the culmination of all our experiences.

Separating SSRI withdrawal symptoms

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SSRI withdrawal symptoms are very complicated because they are primarily emotional in nature.  This makes diagnosing the difference between existing symptoms and those caused by SSRI withdrawal very difficult.  In withdrawal, it is the scale of emotions that define the problem.  Anxiety, depression, fear, even psychosis, are part of the normal human emotional spectrum.  In normal thought, all of these emotions come and go, but are regulated.  An irrational thought may float to the surface, but it is quickly dismissed as inappropriate.  During withdrawal, the normal regulation of thought is short circuited.  The control that we’re so used to exercising over our internal mental landscape disappears.  Rational and irrational thoughts hold the same weight in the conscious mind.  A healthy person who experiences an emotionally traumatic event still feels the full range of emotions, but is able to parse through them all and choose the appropriate response.  If he is cut off in traffic, all of the possible responses are available.  Ramming the car, cutting them off in return, speeding up, slowing down, tailgating, and ignoring the incident all surface in the mind of the driver.  Usually, a person will choose the most socially acceptable response.  It is the function of our higher brains to control our responses.  Withdrawal turns that process on its head.  Instead of evaluating the available responses and choosing the one that best fits into our internal social beliefs, the emotion with the most power overcomes the others.  A normally passive person may lash out in anger or fear during SSRI withdrawal.

One of the key tasks during SSRI withdrawal is to separate the emotions that are caused by withdrawal from those that rise normally.  Beyond the emotions themselves, it’s important to separate the scale of emotions as well.  Anxiety is a normal emotion, it is a programmed response to danger.  The difference during withdrawal is that the scale of anxiety is not regulated as it normally would be.  One of the complicating factors during withdrawal is that emotions have been suppressed during the period of SSRI use.  In a way, the drug takes over the emotional regulation task from the patient.  The patient is, in effect, relearning how to regulate emotions without the effect of the drug.  It’s almost as if the mind is cataloging what is required to regulate each emotion, one madness at a time.

There are several strategies that can be used to parse through the scale of emotions during withdrawal.  The least effective is to try to remember how you reacted to similar situations before starting the SSRI.  Memory is a tricky thing.  Trying to remember the scale of an emotion years later is even trickier.  Events and emotions tend to drift in our memories as we recall them.  Each time we recall an event, the memory is affected by our experiences.  We are essentially interpreting the memory based on what we’ve experienced since.  Memories are not stored in blocks like a computer hard drive.  Instead, different elements of the event are stored in different parts of our brains.  These separate elements are then gathered together to compile a composite memory of the event.  For example, the memory of a high school dance is separated into many different elements.  The smell of a corsage may be influenced by a trip to a garden that you took many years later.  When the memory of the smell is combined with the memory of the dance, you may unwittingly change the memory by combining elements of the garden into it.  Not specifics, your mind would immediately recognize garden elements intruding into the dance memory.  Instead, emotional elements of the garden trip may influence the way you recall the dance.  That is the pitfall in trying to remember your pre SSRI emotional responses.  Your memories may be influenced by experiences you have had since.  Also, since you were not specifically trying to capture your emotional responses at the time, they become more susceptible to memory drift.

Trying to gauge how other people respond to an emotional event is likewise very difficult.  Observing a person’s response does not give a good indication of their internal mental state.  It’s very hard to associate their external response to your internal state.  First, you are relying on your interpretation of their response.  Then, you have to compare how you feel to that interpretation.  Just like personal memories can be influenced, interpersonal emotional interpretations are susceptible to our own experiences.

The best method to parse out withdrawal symptoms from normal emotions is to practice mindfulness and self awareness.  Keeping a journal can help.  It’s really the ongoing experience of withdrawal that teaches the most about the differences.  Withdrawal symptoms come and go during the process.  As they wax and wane, your personal norm becomes more apparent.  Everyone has a different “normal”.  Pay attention to how you are feeling when your symptoms are slight, and apply that knowledge to the times when symptoms reassert themselves.  Most people who start taking an SSRI did so because of an existing condition, be it anxiety, depression, etc.  Separating that baseline from withdrawal is the goal of practicing mindfulness during withdrawal.  Pay attention to the rise and fall of emotions.  Don’t berate yourself if you overreact to a situation.  That’s very common in withdrawal.  Instead, use that experience to recognize what caused the overreaction.  That recognition and awareness will help you reassert the control that seems so fleeting during withdrawal.  As control returns, the worst symptoms of withdrawal should become more manageable.

In the long term, the mindfulness required to track withdrawal symptoms becomes helpful because you will eventually have to address the original symptoms that first prompted you to start taking an SSRI.  Being aware of emotional triggers and your response to them will provide more emotional stability as time goes by.  Not only can emotional self awareness provide relief from withdrawal symptoms, but it may also provide a method for managing underlying anxiety problems.

Phases of SSRI Withdrawal

Not all people experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop taking a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. In clinical trials, the percentage is placed between 2 and 10 percent of patients. These studies are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. In independent research that looked at several different company studies, the percentage of patients who experienced withdrawal symptoms from SSRI was placed between 40 and 60 percent. It’s difficult to ascertain which number is right, most studies are held privately by the drug manufacturers and not available for public scrutiny. The term used by the pharmaceutical companies for withdrawal is “Discontinuation Syndrome”. SSRI work by blocking receptors that absorb Serotonin between neurons, thereby increasing the available Serotonin in the brain. The theory is that depression, obsessive behavior, anxiety, and psychotic behavior are caused by a lack of sufficient Serotonin in the brain. This theory was first developed in the 1950’s when it was noticed that patients’ mood improved when their levels of Serotonin was increased. It is currently impossible to measure the levels of Serotonin in a living brain. 90% of the body’s Serotonin exists in the gut, so researchers measure that amount, and extrapolate a concurrent increase in levels in the brain. Ironically, studies have also proven that reducing Serotonin in the brain can lead to improved mood. These results have brought the chemical imbalance theory under question in recent years. It is beginning to appear that artificially adjusting Serotonin levels in the brain does not have the intended effect, and may be the cause of some of the symptoms that SSRI were originally developed to treat.

The method that SSRI use to increase Serotonin levels in the brain is at the heart of the withdrawal problem. By blocking Serotonin receptors on neurons, the brain becomes dependent on the drug to maintain consistent levels of Serotonin. As the brain becomes accustomed to the drug, it no longer has to produce or regulate Serotonin as it did before. When the drug is removed, the receptors that stimulate Serotonin production are still blocked, and levels of this neurotransmitter begin to fluctuate. Since Serotonin is closely involved in mood and the ability to cope with emotions, this fluctuation causes wide mood swings and uncontrollable emotions. It seems that the level of Serotonin in the brain is not as important as consistent levels. As the brain adjusts to the need to self regulate levels of Serotonin, many patients experience a cascade of extreme emotional and physical symptoms. Analogous to the stages of grief or joy, these symptoms don’t always come all at once. In most cases, withdrawal symptoms come and go as the user lowers their dose of the drug. Some common emotion symptoms include depression, anxiety, anger, confusion, insomnia, and memory loss. For most people, these are symptoms that they experience in every day life. Usually, they are manageable and temporary. The difference for the withdrawal sufferer is that these emotions become unmanageable and intense. The regular mechanism that we use to control our emotions no longer works during withdrawal. It’s hard to imagine the loss of control that accompanies withdrawal symptoms. When a normal person succumbs to anger, it is still a conscious decision. In withdrawal, there is no spiral that precipitates the uncontrollable rage, it springs fully formed in the mind and propels itself without any input from the person experiencing it. The other emotional symptoms of withdrawal act in a similar way. Even when the patient exercises mindfulness and self awareness, anxiety, depression, and the other symptoms come on with little warning. They have a realness and power that most people are not used to. Since the brain’s balance has been disrupted, reality itself has been changed for the patient. Instead of an emotional wave that must be conquered or endured, these emotions become reality, with no alternative.

As time goes by, the patient will eventually be able to self regulate each emotion at a level similar to before they began taking an SSRI. One of the frustrating things about weaning off an SSRI is that the patient is only aware of progress after a phase has passed. They may feel extreme anxiety, but realize that the rage they experienced a few months before no longer bothers them. While they are experiencing a phase, there is no context to compare their emotions to. Since the emotions are so powerful and uncontrollable, emotional self awareness is short circuited, leading to mental relativism. The patient doesn’t realize the whole range of emotions, just the small extreme range that they are experiencing at the moment. The alternative to blind rage isn’t calmness, as it would be in a normal person. Instead, irrational anger is the lower end of the emotional range.

During withdrawal, these realities change and evolve as some emotions become dominant. Patients may experience uncontrollable rage for a few weeks, then enter a stage where depression dominates. These emotional tides are outward signs of the brain readjusting to the need to self regulate neurotransmitter levels. It is almost as if the mind is going through the entire inventory of emotion trying to catalog what’s necessary to regulate each one. Some people will experience several uncontrollable emotions at the same time, but the uncontrollable aspect of them will fade away one at a time. The variety and severity of symptoms often lead doctors to prescribe other drugs to mitigate the effects. This strategy compounds the problems of withdrawal by adding a second effect to an existing condition. The patient now has to deal with withdrawal as well as the effects of a new drug and perhaps a new set of withdrawal symptoms. The best strategy for dealing with SSRI withdrawal symptoms is time and slow weaning. A prolonged weaning schedule will reduce the severity and number of withdrawal symptoms. The brain requires a certain amount of time to adjust back to a natural balance of neurotransmitters which can’t be rushed. By slowly weaning off an SSRI, the brain does not have to deal with a sudden change to Serotonin levels, and can adjust at a natural rate. It takes a great deal of time for receptors in the brain to regenerate. A schedule that reduces the drug by 10% each month is usually sufficient. Schedules can vary depending on the patient. Some will be able to reduce their dose more quickly, others may have to go more slowly.