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What Are Brain Zaps? SSRI Side Effects

What Are Brain Zaps? SSRI Side Effects

Medically Reviewed: Dr. Zohaib Haque
Author: Atlanta Integrative Psychiatry Team
Last Updated: April 3, 2024

Abruptly ending your use of a prescription medication can be problematic for many reasons. In some cases, it can put your health at risk. In other cases, it can cause you to experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms. If the medication you stopped taking is a particular type of antidepressant, your discomfort can include a phenomenon that is often referred to as SSRI brain zaps.

What Are SSRIs?

SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are a category of prescription medications that were developed to treat depression

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is associated with features and functions such as mood, memory, reward, and learning:

  • Usually, once serotonin delivers a message from one neuron to another, the sending neuron reabsorbs it for later use.
  •  When a person takes an SSRI, this medication blocks the receptors on the sending neuron that are responsible for reabsorbing the serotonin. 
  • This leads to elevated levels of the neurotransmitter throughout the central nervous system, which can ease a person’s depression symptoms and improve their mood.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its first approval for an SSRI in 1987, when it authorized fluoxetine, which is marketed as Prozac. This was a landmark event in the history of depression medication. Before doctors were able to prescribe Prozac, most patients were treated with either a monoamine-oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) or a tricyclic antidepressant, both of which could cause severe side effects.

In addition to fluoxetine, several other SSRIs have earned FDA approval. This list includes:

  • Paroxetine (which is sold as Paxil)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Citalopram (Celexa)
  • Fluvoxamine (Luvox)

In the decades since Prozac was first approved to treat depression, SSRIs have proved to be beneficial for people who have a variety of other mental health concerns, such as the following:

What Are Brain Zaps?

When you take a prescription medication for an extended period of time, your body can adapt to the presence of the drug. Depending on which medication you have been taking, if you abruptly end your use of it, you may experience varying degrees of discomfort, including both physical and psychological distress.

Sometimes, when a person who has been taking Prozac or another selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor stops without slowly tapering their use, they experience SSRI brain zaps. 

In a July 2023 article on the website, brain zap researcher Alexander Papp, MD, described the experience as “like an electrical sensation in the brain as if you were shocked inside your head.” 

Brain zaps are relatively brief, usually lasting less than a second, and they don’t appear to be dangerous, but they can be quite disconcerting. Sometimes, SSRI brain zaps are accompanied by lightheadedness, vertigo, distorted vision, and other harrowing effects. 

“Some people [who experience brain zaps] think that they are having seizures. Some people think that they’re having a heart attack. Some people have no idea what’s happening,” Papp said in the article. “It can be a very scary state to be in.” 

Brain zaps don’t only occur when a person intentionally ends their SSRI use. People can experience this type of symptom if they forget to take their medication for a day or two, or if their prescription runs out and they have to wait a few days to get a refill.

How to Avoid SSRI Brain Zaps

The easiest way to avoid SSRI brain zaps is to continue taking the medication. But there are several reasons why you may want or need to end your SSRI use. For example:

  • Not everyone who takes an SSRI achieves symptom relief. Some studies have suggested that only about 40% of people who take any antidepressant report improved symptoms within eight weeks. 
  • Antidepressant medication isn’t always an exact science. You may have to try a variety of medications at different dosage levels to find the one that works best for you. If you began by taking an SSRI, you will need to stop taking it long enough for it to be completely eliminated from your system before you can begin taking a different drug.
  • SSRIs can cause side effects. For some people, the nature and intensity of these effects diminish their quality of life to the point that the medication’s drawbacks outweigh its benefits.
  • After taking an SSRI for an extended period of time and also participating in therapy, you may feel that you are capable of managing your symptoms without medication. 

The good news is that it is possible to stop using an SSRI without developing brain zaps or any other particularly distressing effects. The key to accomplishing this is to slowly taper off the medication by strategically reducing how much you take each day.

Of course, you should never attempt to wean yourself off of an SSRI, another antidepressant, or any other prescription medication without consulting with your doctor first. Working together, you and your doctor can develop a plan for ending your SSRI use with minimal disruption to your health and overall quality of life. 

Learn More About Depression Treatment in Atlanta

If SSRIs or other medications haven’t eased your depression symptoms, Atlanta Psychiatric Institute may have the solutions that are right for you.

Our depression treatment center in Atlanta, Georgia, offers a dynamic array of innovative outpatient services, including individual psychotherapy, group sessions, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy, nutritional education, and ketamine therapy. We also offer genetic testing to identify which antidepressants are most likely to benefit you, and which ones you would be best advised to avoid.  

At Atlanta Psychiatric Institute, we understand how untreated depression can negatively affect virtually every part of your life, and we are committed to providing the focused care that can help you achieve a much healthier and more hopeful future.

To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Appointments page or call us today.

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