8 Common Misconceptions About Antidepressants

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Think you have depression, but feeling uncomfortable about the idea of treating it with medication? Each person’s treatment plan is unique, but if you feel like your life could be improved by antidepressants, you shouldn’t let the many common myths and misconceptions surrounding their use keep you from seeking the help you need.

Mental Floss spoke with Dr. David Mischoulon, director of research at Massachusetts General Hospital's Depression Clinical and Research Program, who set the record straight on some common misconceptions about antidepressants.

1. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS DON'T ADDRESS THE ROOT CAUSE OF DEPRESSION.

There are multiple factors that can contribute to depression, ranging from environmental or situational components to brain biochemistry. Medication can help when the underlying cause is partly biological in nature.

“For example, there are some people who may develop depression for no apparent reason,” Dr. Mischoulon says. “There is absolutely no particular stress in their lives. There hasn’t been any misfortune of any sort. In fact, they’ll often say, ‘I’ve got a life that most of the world would envy,’ and yet they’re depressed ... Those people often respond very well to antidepressants, and in that sense, [the medicine] is getting at the root cause [of the depression], which is a biochemical imbalance in the brain.”

At the other end of the spectrum, some people “may become depressed primarily because of situational problems,” Mischoulon adds. "They may be experiencing problems in the workplace, family problems, or a divorce, things like that. Those factors can certainly contribute to depression—perhaps in combination with a proclivity to becoming depressed, or because … the stress is just so, so tremendous that the person becomes depressed as a result.”

Sometimes these individuals may not respond to antidepressants because the root cause is situational. If their situations were to improve—say, they got a better job—they might start feeling better. Therapy might also help them develop better coping skills.

“There are certain kinds of therapies that have been carefully studied in clinical trials, and for many [depression] cases, they can work very well,” Mischoulon says. “For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the better studied forms; it’s been shown in some studies to be as effective as antidepressants.”

That said, research also suggests that for many people, treating depression with a combination of therapy and medication can be the best course of treatment. “The two will work synergistically," Mischoulon explains. "By combining the two you can get a better result.” (If you're thinking about beginning therapy, here's a guide to figuring out which type is best for you.)

Mental health researchers are trying to pinpoint ways to differentiate between a biochemical depression and situational depression. But as of right now, "we’re not at a point where we can use what we've learned in a clinical setting," Mischoulon says.

2. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS ARE "HAPPY PILLS."

“If I give an antidepressant to a healthy individual—someone who’s not depressed—they’re not going to be happier, or more cheerful” as a result of taking it, Mischoulon says. “It only works to return the mood to the patient’s normal baseline. So if you’re depressed, the antidepressant can help you get back to where you were.”

3. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS ARE ADDICTIVE.

Antidepressants “aren’t drugs of abuse,” Mischoulon says. They may improve your depression symptoms, which can lead to increased energy levels and an improved mood, but they won’t get you high or make you crave additional or stronger doses—all hallmarks of addiction.

However, since your body grows accustomed to the drug, you may experience withdrawal syndromes—including headaches, dizziness, nausea, and irritability—if you stop taking it abruptly, “similarly to what you might have with a recreational drug,” Mischoulon explains. If you’re thinking about discontinuing an antidepressant, check with your doctor first. He or she will likely recommend that you taper your dosage over a period of days or weeks, depending on the medication.

4. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS WILL PERMANENTLY ALTER YOUR PERSONALITY.

Taking the right antidepressant can slowly help a depressed person return to his or her baseline mood, making them feel and act more like “themselves." That said, Mischoulon does say that some patients on antidepressants “report being emotionally numbed, like they can’t experience normal emotions.” There aren’t many prospective or systematic studies that examine this phenomenon, but Mischoulon estimates that maybe 10 percent of the patients in his practice have reported it. It's "a relatively small minority," he adds. 

If this happens to you, don’t worry: It’s usually "not a known cause for concern,” Mischoulon says. This won’t “cause permanent damage to someone’s personality, or their capacity to feel emotions … It’s simply a matter of discontinuing the antidepressant and trying another one.”

5. THE MYTH: ANTIDEPRESSANTS ARE A SHORT-TERM FIX.

If you were successfully treated with antidepressants, you may want to speak with your doctor about continuing to take them as a preventative measure, even if you now feel fine. Research shows that experiencing just one episode of depression puts a person at a 50 percent risk for experiencing another episode, and increases their chances for future relapse.

Some doctors suggest treating conditions like major depression in the same way that you would a chronic illness—with lifelong management. “The good thing is that most antidepressants are very safe to take over the long term, so if a person had to take one indefinitely, it’s not the worst thing in the world,” Mischoulon says.

That said, if you’ve responded well to treatment and don’t have a prior history of depressive episodes, there’s a chance that you’ll be OK if you come off them under a doctor’s supervision.

6. THE MYTH: IF YOU TRY ONE ANTIDEPRESSANT AND IT DOESN'T WORK, MEDICATION ISN'T FOR YOU.

Once you begin taking an antidepressant, it can take weeks, if not months, to feel the full effects. And since there’s currently no good way to predict which antidepressant will work for any one individual, there’s always the chance that the one you’re trying may end up not being the right one for you. If this ends up being the case, you’ll have to begin the cycle anew—this time, with a different pill.

This trial-and-error process can be discouraging for some patients. Keep in mind, however, that there are more than two dozen antidepressants on the market—meaning there’s a good chance you’ll find something that alleviates your symptoms.

“There are antidepressants from different families that differ biochemically,” Mischoulon explains. “What we find is that a lot of people will take a particular type of antidepressant and it may not work, and then they’ll try an antidepressant from another family, and that one will work better for them.”

7. THE MYTH: ALL ANTIDEPRESSANTS HAVE AWFUL, LONG-LASTING SIDE EFFECTS.

From insomnia to blurred vision to fatigue, the long checklist of potential side effects included in your medicine packet can be intimidating, if not downright frightening. Don’t worry: The likelihood that you’ll experience every single one of them is slim, Mischoulon says. Most people only encounter one or two; common side effects include upset stomach, headaches, weight gain, and sedation, but side effects vary from one medication to the next. (For example, on average, Mischoulon estimates that about 15 percent of his patients report weight gain.)

These side effects are sometimes short-term, popping up during the initial stages of treatment and tapering off as the patient’s body gets used to the medication. Still, in other cases, they persist. In the latter instance, you may want to talk with your doctor about switching to another medication or the best way to treat your side effects.

8. THE MYTH: DOCTORS OVERTREAT AMERICANS FOR DEPRESSION.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, antidepressants were the third most commonly prescribed drug taken by Americans of all ages between 2005 and 2008. (Though not all patients take antidepressants for depression and anxiety; they can also be used to treat other issues, including insomnia and chronic pain.) Are these medications overprescribed to patients?

“I think in certain circles they may be overprescribed, and in others they may be underprescribed,” Mischoulon says. “What we do know is that there are a lot of people with depression out there who are not being adequately treated … This could apply to antidepressants, as well as psychotherapy. A lot of people are not getting treatment at all who should be getting some treatment.”

People with depression don’t receive care for a variety of reasons, Mischoulon points out: Stigma, a lack of education, limited economic resources, or not living near a health care professional for treatment are just a few examples. That said, there can be dire repercussions for those who don't seek treatment, including suicide and worsened outcomes for concurrent medical conditions, like cardiovascular disease.

If you think you have depression and have the means to see a doctor, "get a professional evaluation," Mischoulon advises. "Don’t try to self-diagnose. Don’t try to treat it yourself with over-the-counter supplements. Speak to your primary care doctor, and maybe speak to a psychiatrist ... If not treated properly, depression can have devastating consequences."

Why Does Humidity Make Us Feel Hotter?

Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images
Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images

With temperatures spiking around the country, we thought it might be a good time to answer some questions about the heat index—and why humidity makes us feel hotter.

Why does humidity make us feel hotter?

To answer that question, we need to talk about getting sweaty.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class, one of the ways our bodies cool themselves is by sweating. The sweat then evaporates from our skin, and it carries heat away from the body as it leaves.

Humidity throws a wrench in that system of evaporative cooling, though. As relative humidity increases, the evaporation of sweat from our skin slows down. Instead, the sweat just drips off of us, which leaves us with all of the stinkiness and none of the cooling effect. Thus, when the humidity spikes, our bodies effectively lose a key tool that could normally be used to cool us down.

What's relative about relative humidity?

We all know that humidity refers to the amount of water contained in the air. However, as the air’s temperature changes, so does the amount of water the air can hold. (Air can hold more water vapor as the temperature heats up.) Relative humidity compares the actual humidity to the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold at any given temperature.

Whose idea was the heat index?

While the notion of humidity making days feel warmer is painfully apparent to anyone who has ever been outside on a soupy day, our current system owes a big debt to Robert G. Steadman, an academic textile researcher. In a 1979 research paper called, “An Assessment of Sultriness, Parts I and II,” Steadman laid out the basic factors that would affect how hot a person felt under a given set of conditions, and meteorologists soon used his work to derive a simplified formula for calculating heat index.

The formula is long and cumbersome, but luckily it can be transformed into easy-to-read charts. Today your local meteorologist just needs to know the air temperature and the relative humidity, and the chart will tell him or her the rest.

Is the heat index calculation the same for everyone?

Not quite, but it’s close. Steadman’s original research was founded on the idea of a “typical” person who was outdoors under a very precise set of conditions. Specifically, Steadman’s everyman was 5’7” tall, weighed 147 pounds, wore long pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and was walking at just over three miles per hour into a slight breeze in the shade. Any deviations from these conditions will affect how the heat/humidity combo feels to a certain person.

What difference does being in the shade make?

Quite a big one. All of the National Weather Service’s charts for calculating the heat index make the reasonable assumption that folks will look for shade when it’s oppressively hot and muggy out. Direct sunlight can add up to 15 degrees to the calculated heat index.

How does wind affect how dangerous the heat is?

Normally, when we think of wind on a hot day, we think of a nice, cooling breeze. That’s the normal state of affairs, but when the weather is really, really hot—think high-90s hot—a dry wind actually heats us up. When it’s that hot out, wind actually draws sweat away from our bodies before it can evaporate to help cool us down. Thanks to this effect, what might have been a cool breeze acts more like a convection oven.

When should I start worrying about high heat index readings?

The National Weather Service has a handy four-tiered system to tell you how dire the heat situation is. At the most severe level, when the heat index is over 130, that's classified as "Extreme Danger" and the risk of heat stroke is highly likely with continued exposure. Things get less scary as you move down the ladder, but even on "Danger" days, when the heat index ranges from 105 to 130, you probably don’t want to be outside. According to the service, that’s when prolonged exposure and/or physical activity make sunstroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion likely, while heat stroke is possible.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article has been updated for 2019.

Chimpanzees Bond by Watching Movies Together, Too

Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images
Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images

Scientists at the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center in Germany recently discovered that, like humans, chimpanzees bond when they watch movies together, the BBC reports.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers stationed pairs of chimpanzees in front of screens that showed a video of a family of chimps playing with a young chimp. They found that afterward, the chimps would spend more time grooming and interacting with each other—or simply being in the same part of the room—than they would without having watched the video.

They gave the chimps fruit juice to keep them calm and occupied while they viewed the video, and they chose a subject that chimps have previously proven to be most interested in: other chimps. They also used eye trackers to ensure the chimps were actually watching the video. If you’ve ever watched a movie with friends, you might notice similarities between the chimps’ experience and your own. Drinks (and snacks) also keep us calm and occupied while we watch, and we like to watch movies about other humans. Since this study only showed that chimps bond over programs about their own species, we don’t know if it would work the same way if they watched something completely unrelated to them, like humans do—say, The Lion King.

Bonding through shared experiences was thought to be one of the traits that make us uniquely human, and some researchers have argued that other species don’t have the psychological mechanisms to realize that they’re even sharing an experience with another. This study suggests that social activities for apes don’t just serve utilitarian purposes like traveling together for safety, and that they’re capable of a more human-like social closeness.

The part that is uniquely human about this study is the fact that they were studying the effect of a screen, as opposed to something less man-made. The chimps in question have participated in other studies, so they may be more accustomed to that technology than wild apes. But the study demonstrates that we’re not the only species capable of social interaction for the sake of social interaction.

[h/t BBC]

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