Skip to main content

Cart

Antidepressants Affect Your Empathy & Relationships In This Way

By March 11, 2024Blog
Antidepressants Affect Your Empathy & Relationships In This Way

To Suppress Or To Not Suppress

I once had a lovely client who had been on antidepressants for some time by the time our paths crossed. When we would have couples coaching sessions – he, his lovely wife and I – he would struggle to engage with his thoughts.

It was visibly noticeable and the numbness was palpable, and as it seemed odd as he was an intelligent man with a great job, I brought this to our mutual attention.

It became clear to my client that his antidepressants were getting in the way of him being able to engage his brain fully.

Now, what I’m about to say does not constitute medical advice whatsoever, however, much to my surprise, my client came to the next session, maybe two or three weeks later, reporting that he had completely rid his life of those antidepressants. And we noticed how he had regained a much more fully functioning brain with almost immediate effect, so to speak.

All three of us witnessed a significant transformation in how he engaged with our coaching conversations. He could answer questions easily, introspect more comfortably, and took action in between sessions buoyantly. He was a different person. Actually, he was himself again. And it was so nice to meet the real him.

So when I stumbled across this research study, I just knew I had to share the details with you.

 

You Know Yourself Best

First, though, let me reassure you that I’m not suggesting that you ditch your antidepressants; you know yourself best and you must make the right decisions for your life, guilt free.

Indeed, I have had coaching clients who had been long-term users of antidepressants when they first came for coaching and were still on antidepressants by the time we finished our journey together.

Now let’s look at this scientific study as it may be something that will help you and your relationships, and/or your loved ones and their relationships.

 

Antidepressants Affect Your Empathy

Noting a major issue with the samples used in previous studies of empathy in those suffering from major depressive disorder (clinical depression which we will here forth refer to as ‘depression’), researchers set out to uncover whether impairments in empathy were linked to the sufferer having depression or being under the influence of antidepressants. And they did this like so:

  • The researchers tested the empathic behavioural and neural responses to viewing the pain of others in a video clip, in a set of 29 people with depression, by using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) session before antidepressant treatment was administered, and again after three months of antidepressant therapy. Most were treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, such as the commonly used Citalopram).

 

  • Alongside this, 35 ‘healthy controls’, i.e. participants without depression, were also tested for their empathic responses to viewing someone else in pain in a video clip.

 

  • All participants were asked questions about their perspective and feelings regarding what they had seen.

 

  • Furthermore, to ensure what specifically was being elicited and tested in the experiment, the participants were also given a task in which they received a painful electric shock, thus separating responses to experiencing personal pain from witnessing the pain of others.

 

Before the depressed patients underwent antidepressant therapy, there were no differences between the empathic responses of the healthy and depressed patients. After antidepressant treatment, however, the depressed patients showed significantly less activity in brain regions associated with empathy for pain, as well as decreased feelings of empathy.

Even though their depressive symptoms improved, their empathy declined after three months of antidepressants use. Yet at the same time, their responses to painful electrical shocks remained the same after treatment, demonstrating that whilst they still experienced personal physical pain in the same way after antidepressant treatment, they no longer had the same level of empathy for others in pain. Wow.

 

Healthy Relationships Need Empathy

So antidepressants can have an emotional blunting effect on depressed patients, whereas the mood disorder itself does not appear to. Undoubtedly, that antidepressant-caused lack of empathy will have negative repercussions on one’s significant relationships.

Now a narcissistic may try to use this as an excuse for any mean behaviour they display, but as we know, their toxic traits are not down to antidepressants, they’re down to their desire to boost their own ego at the painful expense of others, and they will often do so with relish.

But for healthy relationships, assuming you or a loved one have been on antidepressants for at least three months, how might the drugs be hindering your ability to connect to one another, feel good about your relationship, sadness aside, feel close, feel understood, feel cared for, feel loved?

 

Overcoming This Negative Effect Of Antidepressants

Whether you or your loved one choose(s) to continue antidepressant treatment or not (having discussed all options with each other, and with a medical professional) you could tweak a number of things. Here are just three of many things one can do to help increase empathy if one is suffering from depression and taking antidepressants.

Firstly, the depressed person in the relationship could incorporate aerobic exercise into their daily/weekly routine as:

‘Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for thirty to forty-five minutes, three to five times a week, has been shown to be effective for treating major depressive disorder 43, 44 – potentially as effective as antidepressants. 45, 46’ [2].

Secondly, movement in the form of walking has an immediate and residual affect on creative problem-solving [3] and working out specifically why you or they are depressed and what will help you/them to become depression free, requires problem solving.

Your emotions are trying to guide you towards your happiness. Use them.

Thirdly, help the depressed person to bring their most empathic self as and when required. Researchers have found that empathy requires mental (cognitive) effort and so people can try to avoid it for this very reason, but if they believe they are good at it, then they will choose to be empathic rather than avoid it [4].

So when you need their empathy, pick your timing wisely – i.e. when they are as well rested as can be, and are present in the moment with you – and if it’s the case, genuinely let them know that they are, overall, good at being empathic. Those words of encouragement will additionally focus their mind on the task in hand – being empathic.

 

Support Each Other

Depression can be a very difficult journey, but whether young or old, people do recover, fortunately, both with and without antidepressants.

Engage in plenty of self-care, it will significantly help both the depressed person and the person supporting the person with depression.

If you’re depressed, kindly let your loved ones know what you need so that they know how best to support you and also so that they do not feel rejected.

If your loved one is depressed, ask them how you can best support them, ask them what makes them feel less depressed and more balanced, even if not happy just yet. And then do your best to provide it, emotionally, practically.

Be gentle, be patient, and be understanding, with yourself, and with each other. Better days are coming.

 

Reference

1. Rütgen, M., Pletti, C., Tik, M., Kraus, C., Pfabigan, D. M., Sladky, R., Klöbl, M., Woletz, M., Vanicek, T., Windischberger, C., Lanzenberger, R., & Lamm, C. (2019). Antidepressant treatment, not depression, leads to reductions in behavioral and neural responses to pain empathy. Translational Psychiatry 9, 164. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0496-4

2. Owen, S. (2019). Happy Relationships: 7 simple rules to create harmony and growth. UK: Orion Publishing

3. Oppezzo, M. and Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4): 1142–52.

4. Cameron, C. D., Hutcherson, C. A., Ferguson, A. M., Scheffer, J. A., Hadjiandreou, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2019). Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of its cognitive costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(6), 962–976. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000595