Are you experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression and are unsure which treatment option is best for you? With so many different medications available, it may seem overwhelming and difficult to know which medication to choose.
SSRIs and tricyclics are two common types of medications used to treat anxiety and depression. Both classes of medications have been shown to be effective but have different mechanisms of action and side effects. Based on your symptoms, as well as your past and current health history, your assigned healthcare provider will help determine which medication is right for you.
In this article, we’ll discuss the difference between SSRIs and tricyclics, including how they work, common side effects, cost, and some warnings associated with each medication. It is important to understand the key differences between medications in order to find the best treatment option for you.
The healthcare providers on Klarity can help you navigate this process. Schedule an online appointment with a mental health provider today to find the personalized treatment plan that works for you, if applicable.
This article discusses suicide, suicidal ideation, and self-harm. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or is in crisis, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately at 800-273-8255.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed medications used to treat anxiety and depression. SSRIs are used in both adolescent and adult populations and have been found to be one of the most effective types of drugs to improve mood and reduce anxiety.
How Do SSRIs Work?
Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter that is naturally found in the brain and throughout the body. It acts as a messenger between the nerve cells and plays an important role in many bodily functions, such as mood, sleep, nausea, and digestion.
Research has shown that serotonin levels are reduced in patients that suffer from depression and anxiety. SSRIs work by increasing the amount of available serotonin in the brain by blocking the reabsorption or reuptake of serotonin into neurons.
What Do SSRIs Treat?
SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed and widely used medications to treat anxiety and depression. They have been found to be the most effective class of medications to improve mood and are safely used in both adolescent and adult populations. Anxiety and depression are often diagnosed simultaneously in patients, making this class of medications useful when treating those who are suffering from both. In addition, SSRIs are also used to treat eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).
Depression is a common and serious mood disorder that affects the patient’s everyday life. This condition impacts the patient’s feelings, alters the thinking process, and disrupts their daily activities. There are many different types of depression, with the most common known as major depression.
Major depressive disorder (MDD) consists of various symptoms of depression that occur for the majority of at least two weeks and interfere with everyday life. Some common symptoms include:
- Persistent depressed mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, irritability, or restlessness
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disruption
- Changes in appetite
- Depression can cause physical symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, and various pain throughout the body.
- Severe depression can also increase thoughts of death, suicide, or self-harm.
People with depression tend to have lower levels of serotonin, and SSRIs work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain. SSRIs have been shown to be highly effective in improving mood and are one of the most common forms of treatment today.
Anxiety is a normal physiological reaction to any perceived stressor in life. However, patients who suffer from anxiety disorders experience intense, constant, or excessive fear and worry about everyday life events and situations. Similar to depression, there are a number of different types of anxiety disorders, with the most common described as generalized anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) consists of increased anxiety or worry surrounding everyday life events or situations. The amount of worry is considered to be exaggerated or out of proportion to the given routine circumstances and is often challenging to control. In addition, the patient with anxiety often experiences physical symptoms, such as a racing heart rate or irregular heartbeats, chest pain, or shortness of breath.
SSRIs help to increase the levels of serotonin in the brain and work to help calm the racing thoughts or feelings of worry. This class of medication has been proven to be one of the most effective forms of treatment for various anxiety disorders.
What Are the Most Commonly Prescribed SSRIs?
Prozac (fluoxetine) is most commonly prescribed for mood disorders, such as depression, OCD, and panic disorder. It is also commonly prescribed for eating disorders.
Paxil (paroxetine) is primarily prescribed for depression but may also be used to treat various anxiety disorders, OCD, panic attacks, PTSD, and PMDD.
Zoloft (sertraline) is used to treat depression, OCD, panic disorders, PTSD, PMDD, and social anxiety. This is one of the more popular medications prescribed than the comparable drugs in this class.
Celexa (citalopram) is typically used to treat depression and tends to be slightly less popular than other SSRIs. This is likely because this medication has been shown to be less effective than other SSRI options in research studies.
Luvox (fluvoxamine) is an SSRI that is used to treat OCD and is not typically prescribed to treat generalized anxiety or depression.
Lexapro (escitalopram) is a common medication to treat depression and certain types of anxiety. This drug is fairly popular and commonly prescribed.
Trintellix (vortioxetine) is a serotonin modulator and is pharmacologically unique compared to other SSRIs. This is commonly used to treat major depressive disorder. There is no generic alternative available, making this medication more expensive compared to other SSRIs.
Viibryd (vilazodone) is a newer SSRI used to treat depression. This medication tends to be less popular than other SSRIs and does not have a generic alternative.
The cost of SSRIs varies drastically depending on the specific medication and generic vs. name brand formulations. Overall, this class of medication is fairly inexpensive, and the majority of SSRIs come available in both generic and name-brand versions. Some of the most affordable SSRIs include Zoloft, Prozac, Lexapro, Celexa, and Paxil.
The average cost of a 30-day supply of SSRIs ranges from $4 – $40 for generic name medications when using a coupon card at the pharmacy. Some SSRIs do not have a generic formulation and are more expensive, such as Luvox, with a higher cost for a 30-day supply at around $130. The majority of these medications are covered by insurance, and prescription coupon cards are available at most pharmacies.
Common Side Effects
The most common side effects of SSRIs include:
- Nausea, vomiting, GI upset, or diarrhea
- Dry mouth
- Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
- Drowsiness or dizziness
- Increased nervousness, feelings of restlessness, or agitation
- Reduced libido, erectile dysfunction
- Increase or decrease appetite, leading to changes in weight
Warnings for Use
Serotonin syndrome is a rare but serious condition that occurs when serotonin levels accumulate in the body. Signs and symptoms include anxiety or agitation, fever, increased sweating, tremors, feelings of restlessness, lack of coordination or confusion, and changes in the patient’s blood pressure and heart rate.
This is commonly seen in patients who are taking multiple medications that increase serotonin levels in the body simultaneously. It is important to immediately seek medical attention if you begin to experience these symptoms and inform your healthcare provider of all the medications you are taking before being started on an antidepressant.
An increase in suicidal thoughts or behaviors has been seen in some patients that are started on SSRIs. This is rare and most commonly seen in adolescents and young adults under the age of 25. Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you begin to experience suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Abrupt discontinuation of an SSRI may result in withdrawal-like symptoms, and you should work with your healthcare provider to gradually stop the medication. Common discontinuation syndrome symptoms include:
- Flu-like symptoms: muscle aches or pain, chills, fatigue
- Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or nightmares
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort
- Imbalance or lack of coordination
- Sensory disturbances, such as tremors or sensations of electric shock
Tricyclic antidepressants are yet another common treatment used for depression. This class of medications is among some of the oldest forms of antidepressant medications developed, but due to their side effect profile, they have become less popular among the general population. However, this type of medication remains to be a good treatment option for some.
How Do Tricyclics Work?
Tricyclic antidepressants work by acting on a number of different chemical neurotransmitter pathways or messaging systems in the brain. Similar to SSRIs, tricyclics block the reuptake of serotonin in the brain. In addition, tricyclic antidepressants also block the reuptake of norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter, leading to increased levels of both norepinephrine and serotonin in the brain. They work in the brain to elevate mood, slow down activity, as well as relieve itching.
What Do Tricyclics Treat?
Tricyclics are primarily used to treat depression and migraine headache prevention. In some circumstances, they are used to treat OCD, anxiety disorders, insomnia, as well as chronic pain and neuropathic pain or pain due to dysfunction of the nerves in our body. Tricyclic antidepressants may also be used to treat migraine headaches, bed wetting, insomnia, itching, and eczema.
As described above, depression is a very common and serious mood disorder that affects the patient’s everyday life through disruptions in their daily activities. Tricyclic antidepressants remain to be one of the earliest pharmacologically developed medications used to treat depression.
There are a number of different depressive disorders, with the most common being Major depressive disorder (MDD), which consists of various symptoms of depression that occur for the majority of at least two weeks and interfere with everyday life.
Some common symptoms of MDD include:
- Persistent depressed mood
- Los of interest in pleasurable activities
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Irritability or restlessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disruption, including insomnia or increased need for sleep
- Changes in appetite, leading to weight loss or gain
- Physical symptoms: headaches, fatigue, pain in various areas
- Severe can increase thoughts of death, suicide, or self-harm
Those who suffer from depression tend to have lower levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Tricyclic antidepressants work by increasing these two neurochemical messengers to improve depressive symptoms.
Anxiety is known to be an exaggerated biological response to a perceived threat or life stressor. There are a number of different anxiety disorders, with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) being the most commonly diagnosed.
GAD causes increased levels of anxiety or worry surrounding everyday life events or situations. Patients with anxiety may also experience physical symptoms such as a racing heart rate or irregular heartbeats, chest pain, or shortness of breath.
Tricyclics were one of the first medications that were developed for the treatment of anxiety and are still commonly used today. By acting on two different neurotransmitters in the brain, they have been shown to be effective in easing feelings of worry and controlling racing thoughts in those who suffer from anxiety.
What Are the Most Commonly Prescribed Tricyclics?
Tofranil (imipramine hydrochloride) is commonly prescribed to treat depression, as well as nighttime bed wetting in children.
Pamelor (nortriptyline) is used to treat depression. It is inexpensive but remains to be slightly less popular compared to other tricyclic medications due to more drug interactions with various medications that are commonly prescribed. It is also slightly more expensive than other TCAs.
Asendin (amoxapine) is used to treat depression and anxiety disorders. This drug is typically taken once before bedtime due to drowsiness.
Elavil (amitriptyline) is a commonly prescribed drug used to treat migraine headaches and major depressive disorder. It is one of the most commonly prescribed tricyclic medications. Amitriptyline is only available as a generic drug, and in addition to Elavil, generic names include Amitid, Amitril, and Endep.
Surmontil (trimipramine) is another tricyclic medication used to treat depression. This medication is available as a capsule and is taken one to three times a day.
Vivactil (protriptyline) is used to treat depression. This medication is less popular because it is more expensive than other tricyclics and is typically prescribed for multiple doses per day.
Silenor (doxepin) is primarily used to treat insomnia and helps you sleep throughout the night. There are currently no available generic alternatives for this medication, and it remains to be less popular than other comparable medications.
Zonalong or Prudoxin (doxepin) is another form of this tricyclic medication and is prescribed to reduce itching that is caused by various skin conditions, such as eczema.
Norpramin (desipramine) is used to treat depression. It is not as commonly prescribed compared to other tricyclics.
The cost of tricyclic antidepressants varies based on the specific drug prescribed. Overall, tricyclics are more expensive than SSRIs. The least expensive tricyclics include Amitriptyline, Pamelor, Silenor, Norpramin, and Tofranil. A 30-day supply of these medications is under $20 with a coupon card that is available at most pharmacies.
Other tricyclics are more expensive, and a 30-day supply can reach over $120 with a coupon card. The majority of these medications are covered by insurance.
Common Side Effects
Due to the side effect profile of this class of medications, other drugs, such as SSRIs, have become more popular in the treatment of depression.
Some of the most common side effects include:
- Dry mouth
- Blurred vision
- Orthostatic hypotension, or a drop in blood pressure when the patient moves from a sitting to a standing position, causing lightheadedness while standing up
- Urine retention
- Increased sweating
- Increased or decreased appetite, leading to changes in weight
- Sexual dysfunction, including decreased libido or inability to maintain an erection
Warnings for Use
Due to the physical side effects associated with tricyclics, safety is a major concern when starting one of these medications, especially in the elderly or when on a high dose. Falls are a common safety concern due to disorientation or confusion. Tricyclics may also cause elevated or irregular heartbeat, as well as an increased risk of seizure in those who are prone to seizures. Do not drink alcohol while taking a tricyclic antidepressant, as this can worsen the side effects of the medication.
Overdose with tricyclic antidepressants can be dangerous and even lethal in some cases. All medications, including over-the-counter medications and supplements, should be reviewed with your physician before starting an antidepressant. Tricyclics should be avoided in patients with a history of suicidal thoughts or attempts. As with SSRIs, there is also a rare but serious concern for increased suicidal thoughts or behaviors, and should be closely monitored in adolescents and young adults under the age of 25.
If you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact your healthcare provider immediately or go to the emergency department. The suicide hotline number is 988, and this service is available 24/7.
In addition, all past and current health conditions should be disclosed and discussed with your physician before starting a tricyclic antidepressant. Of note, certain comorbid conditions may impact the safety of using a tricyclic medication, including glaucoma, heart issues, diabetes, enlarged prostate, liver disease, or a seizure disorder.
Serotonin syndrome is a rare but serious condition that occurs when serotonin levels accumulate in the body. Signs and symptoms include anxiety or agitation, fever, increased sweating, tremors, feelings of restlessness, lack of coordination or confusion, and changes in the patient’s blood pressure and heart rate. This is commonly seen in patients who are taking multiple medications that increase serotonin levels in the body simultaneously. It is important to immediately seek medical attention if you begin to experience these symptoms and inform your physician of all the medications you are taking before being started on an antidepressant.
Abrupt discontinuation or missing several doses of a tricyclic antidepressant may result in withdrawal-like symptoms, and you should work with your physician to gradually and safely stop the medication. Common discontinuation syndrome symptoms include:
- Increased agitation, irritability, or anxiety
- Flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches or pains, chills, fatigue
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort
- Increased sweating
Which Anxiety or Depression Medication is Right For You?
With so many different treatment options available for anxiety and depression, including SSRIs and tricyclics, it can be overwhelming to decide which medication is the right one for you. Your healthcare provider will help navigate this process with you to find the best individualized treatment plan. It is important that you discuss all of your symptoms, health history, and medications, including over-the-counter supplements, before starting medication for your mental health.
Of note, everyone reacts differently to each medication described, and the majority of these medications may take up to several weeks to take effect. You may experience side effects after initially starting an antidepressant medication, which may subside after the first week or so or may persist. The dose of the medication may also need to be adjusted throughout your treatment process, or your healthcare provider may recommend changing the type of antidepressant medication based on how you tolerate a specific drug.
Find the Right Medication With Healthcare Providers on Klarity
The healthcare providers on Klarity provide quality mental health care online, including diagnosis and treatment. In addition to medication, your healthcare providers may also recommend additional treatment modalities, such as therapy.
Klarity offers simplified care at your convenience and at a fraction of the price compared to a traditional psych clinic visit. There is no insurance or subscriptions needed and no hidden costs. The monthly online medication management starts at only $25.
Schedule an appointment today or take a 2-minute self-evaluation to see which personalized treatment option will be best for you, if applicable.