Psychiatric medication can be an incredibly useful tool when dealing with acute mental health symptoms that impact your ability to function. While some people need meds for chronic mental illnesses or a chemical imbalance, most people on antidepressants or anti-anxiety prescriptions need them only for short-term support.
Mental health professionals, myself included, recommend that those who take psychiatric meds do so in conjunction with psychotherapy, especially when making the decision and actually coming off of the medication. This can be a vulnerable period that evokes feelings both physical and emotional.
Here are four reasons why it’s a good idea to work with a therapist while coming off of meds.
1. Working with a therapist will help strengthen your coping skills
When tapering off meds that have been mitigating symptoms, it can be normal to become more symptomatic again — but don’t panic! Working with a therapist during this process is a great time to inventory old coping mechanisms, practice those skills that were effective, or learn new ones that will be.
For example, your therapist may help you identify people in your support system to talk to if you’re having a rough time. He or she can practice relaxation exercises like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Strengthening your safety net while lowering the dosage of your meds, will ensure that something is there to catch you the process is more difficult than anticipated.
2. You’ll more effectively process your feelings while tapering
All things come to an end, but endings can bring with them a lot of feelings. Even though tapering off meds may mean progress in one area of your life, you may feel that progress brings setbacks in other areas. Many grow to identify with the mental illness with which they’ve been diagnosed; it becomes a part of their personal identity. “If I’m no longer on medication, does that mean I’m recovered?” you may wonder. “And if I’m recovered, then who am I?” Working with a therapist to unpack these complicated feelings and to find yourself outside of your diagnosis is crucial work.
Another feeling that often crops up is one of anxiety about the possibility of “undoing” the work that the medication did and ending right back at square one. Your therapist can talk you through that anxiety and help to plan for all possible outcomes as you taper off.
3. Working with a therapist gives you an opportunity to have more regular check-ins
Most people on medication only see their psychiatrist about once a month, typically even less often. Most of us have much more frequent contact with our therapists, and they can check in regularly to make sure we’re feeling okay as we transition off the medication. And if your therapist has a direct line to your psychiatrist, he or she can act as a powerful advocate if you’re not able to speak with your psychiatrist directly when you need to.
4. You can talk through any side effects
Most psychopharmaceuticals have some type of physical or emotional side effects associated, but some — depending on the medication — also include side effects as a result of tapering off. For example, some antidepressants leave the user with an almost withdrawal-like feeling as the medication makes its way out of the body. It depends on the half life of the drug. Your therapist can help you mitigate this and any other side effects that might occur and, at the very least, provide an empathic ear as you make these sometimes uncomfortable changes.
Whether or not you go off of psychiatric drugs, you shouldn’t feel judgment either way — it shouldn’t feel like a moral decision, but one based on recommendations from your doctor and therapist. For many people, however, going off is not any easy process, which is why having a therapist be there to guide you down that path is a wise decision. And, if you should require medication in the future, your therapist will already know what you’ve gone through before, and will be able to remind you that you’ve done it before successfully — and can do it again.