Living with depression is a daily struggle for many people. Approximately 16 million Americans are affected each year and one in six Americans will experience depression at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are options to manage depression, including therapy and antidepressants. Over the past few decades, more clinicians and their patients have turned to antidepressants, and prescriptions have skyrocketed 400 percent between late 1988 and 2008. Before the pandemic, 13.2 percent of US adults took antidepressants.
Antidepressants offer relief to many patients, but others report side effects, including feelings of emotional numbness. Researchers call it “emotional numbing.” They are still learning how it is caused and what it might mean in the long run.
The patient is diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) after experiencing five of nine symptoms over a two-week period, according to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). These symptoms may include depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, change in appetite, insomnia, fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness.
Antidepressants can help relieve symptoms, but many patients who use them long-term report side effects. Researchers have tracked side effects for decades, including what they call emotional numbing. For some people, emotional numbing can mean an inability to cry. For others, it can be a feeling of apathy towards others. Some patients describe the experience as a narrow range of emotions and feel neither very happy nor sad.
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Emotional dulling is common among people who take antidepressants long-term. In a 2016 study in Patient preferences and adherence, researchers recruited 180 participants who had used antidepressants for at least three years and had them use rating scales to rate their medication effectiveness, quality of life, and perceived side effects.
Almost all — 89.4 percent — said the drug improved their depression. About 65 percent of participants said emotional numbness was a side effect of their prescription. Other side effects include sexual problems, weight gain and feelings of addiction.
Similarly, 2018 survey in Current drug safety recruited more than 1,400 participants in 38 countries to complete an online questionnaire about their experiences with antidepressants. The questionnaire presents 20 adverse effects and asks participants to indicate whether they have experienced it and to what extent. “Feeling emotionally numb” was the most common response, with 71 percent agreeing that they had experienced it.
Other adverse effects include feeling foggy or detached (70 percent of respondents agree), not feeling like their typical self (66 percent agree), sexual difficulties (66 percent), sleepiness (63 percent), and a decrease in positive feelings ( 60 percent).
Researchers agree that emotional blunting is associated with the use of antidepressants and many clinicians have accepted it as a normal part of the healing process. But scientists disagree about what causes emotional numbing and whether it will stay with a person long after the prescription ends.
One unanswered question is whether emotional blunting is a permanent symptom of major depression, as opposed to a side effect of medication. Many clinicians assume that as antidepressants alleviate a person’s depressive symptoms, other emotions also decrease.
Article from 2022 in Journal of Affective Disorders suggested that the emotional numbing was not caused by the drug. Rather, it is a possible “residual depressive symptom” that persists despite pharmacological intervention.
Although scientists believe there are several possibilities as to why many people who take antidepressants feel emotionally numb, they agree that more research is needed to better understand the phenomenon, what causes it and whether it will stick in the long term.
Calls for continued research into the use and effectiveness of antidepressants come at a time when the number of diagnoses is expected to rise. Symptoms of depression increased threefold during the pandemic, especially among those with less financial security. By 2030. World Health Organization warns that depression will be a leading disabling disease worldwide.