by Dr. Devin Shoquist

I have a confession. I am a normal human being just like you. Well, that’s not the real confession. The real confession is that I would be just as nervous as the next guy if I were faced with the decision to take a medication specifically designed to affect my brain. Even with all of my medical training and years spent as a psychiatrist seeing people recover from depression, anxiety and the like, I would be nervous. That’s because it’s a normal response.

Most of us are not programmed to be comfortable swallowing a pill knowing that it could change the way we perceive ourselves or the world around us. I will be the first to tell you that it’s not a decision to be taken lightly, and I will guarantee that most people don’t. When a person finally reaches my office, he or she has probably agonized and even suffered for months before finally deciding it is worth going to see a doctor. Let’s face it; seeing a psychiatrist can be humbling. However, it’s worth it. Suffering too long with depression or anxiety can drastically impact your family, your career, and your life as you may have known it before.

I’m not going to try to tell you that medication is the only answer, because it is not. Specific types of individual “talk” therapy (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy) have been proven as effective as medication in cases of mild depression or anxiety. This can sometimes do the trick by itself, but many times a person will feel “stuck” as if they’re trying to ride uphill on a one-speed bicycle. This is where countless people have found the benefit of medication to give them those extra gears to get the pedals moving and ultimately overcome their condition on their own power.

So I wanted to take a few minutes to address some of the common questions, and possible misconceptions, about medications used to treat depression and anxiety. Let me first clarify that I am not talking about the fast-acting “feel good” pills known as benzodiazepines ( Xanax and Valium), but rather medications that affect the brain chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine ( Zoloft and Effexor). They are the gold standard treatment, and whether you see a psychiatrist or primary care provider, they should be the first things that are prescribed. These medications work by improving the way our brain and nervous system use the brain chemicals noted above, which are believed to be important in the way we feel, behave, and carry out our activities of daily living such as eating, sleeping, and enjoying a healthy and productive life.

Some people view these types of medications negatively and refer to them as “a crutch.” I like to turn this around and say yes, hopefully it is a crutch. I am always optimistic that medication will be a temporary aid to get a person through a difficult time. Medication is intended to get you back to your normal self, or to a place that is expected of a person that may be going through the same amount of stress that you are. If you feel extremely out of sorts or notice a negative change in your behavior while on medication this is not normal, and should be discussed with your provider that prescribed the medication.

By the way, taking an anti-depressant does not make you “crazy,” whatever that word is ultimately supposed to mean. Most people that take anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication do not have a serious mental illness, but rather have concerning symptoms of depression or anxiety that can affect normal people. You may know people, or be surprised to find out that you know people, that are either on these types of medication now or have been in the past.

Of course with all medications there is the possibility of side effects, but most people are willing to put up with them if the benefits are worth it. If people have side effects at all, they tend to be mild and are reversible when you stop the medication. You should feel comfortable talking to your prescribing provider if you experience any continuing side effects that would prevent you from taking the medication during your course of treatment.

As with any important decision, being informed can help you make a decision for yourself, and allow you to be more sensitive to those who have chosen to get this kind of help. So the next time you’re downing your third cup of coffee for the day or that second glass of wine for the night, ask yourself: “Am I really so afraid to take something that affects the way I think and feel?”

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