How these little pills are stealing our souls.
Posted Nov 04, 2019
You don’t have to look too hard to find evidence that modern anti-depressants often have atrocious psychological side effects. Typing the phrase “antidepressant zombie” into Google today (11/4/2019) turns up 990,000 results. That’s close to a million, if you are counting. Here is a brief sample of the specifics of what real people are saying:
- “I was a walking zombie who had lost the capacity to feel. My antidepressants weren’t just anti-depressant, they were anti-emotion.”
- “I’ve lost not only sexuality but they made me a completely different person, complete depersonalization. I had been a tough guy, heavily built. God gave me excellent brain and body ... SSRI took all that away. I had to go through hell to somehow manage not to kill myself cuz of a zombie emptiness inside.”
- “A patient once told me that both Zoloft–and, later on, Lexapro–were intolerable because they made him feel like a zombie.”
And so forth.
Look, the modern pharmaceutical industry has done all kinds of great things for people. I get that. But, as an evolutionist–and as a human–I also am capable of stepping back and questioning the large-scale prescribing of pharmaceuticals as a solution to improve people’s psychological worlds. Our emotion system, for better or worse, evolved as it has for a reason. And popping pills is not always the answer to every problem.
The Bright Side of Dark Emotions
Our modern emotion system evolved under ancestral conditions. This system includes positive emotions, such as happiness and love. But it also includes darker emotions, like anxiety, outrage, and sadness.
From an evolutionary perspective, the “point” of life is not to feel “happy.” Rather, evolved creatures, such as we, are here because we possess a broad array of adaptations, including such unpleasantries as anxiety, because these adaptations facilitated survival and reproductive success in our ancestors. For better or worse, pain, both physical and emotional, has its place.
Anxiety drove our ancestors to stay away from large predators. Depression, under certain conditions, motivated our ancestors to seek connections with close others after suffering major social and emotional losses (see Keller & Nesse, 2006). And anger motivated our ancestors to stand up for themselves and stave off threats to the survival of themselves and their family members. Negative emotions have their place.
The Dark Side of Big Pharma
These days, there seems to be a drug for everything. And the excessively medical nature of our mental healthcare system encourages the use of psychopharmaceuticals at so many levels. With these pills, you can stave off anxiety, depression, irritability, and more. And it is without question that many people are reaping all kinds of benefits as a result.
But at what cost?
One of the most common forms of psychopharmacological interventions these days can be found in SSRIs–Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Based on extensive research across decades, these medications have done wonders for all kinds of people who are suffering from depression and anxiety.
These medications, including such brands as Lexapro and Celexa, generally inhibit the actions of neurons that usually take in the neurotransmitter serotonin, thereby increasing the overall amount of serotonin, a mood-enhancing chemical, being produced in the brain. In many cases, this stuff works wonders. But in many other cases, it turns people into self-reported zombies. An evolutionary perspective on emotion can help us understand why that is.
According to this report, Celexa, a very popular SSRI, often has the following common side effects:
- a light-headed feeling, like you might pass out;
- blurred vision, tunnel vision, eye pain or swelling, or seeing halos around lights;
- headache with chest pain and severe dizziness, fainting, fast or pounding heartbeats;
- severe nervous system reaction — very stiff (rigid) muscles, high fever, sweating, confusion, fast or uneven heartbeats, tremors, feeling like you might pass out;
- high levels of serotonin in the body — agitation, hallucinations, fever, fast heart rate, overactive reflexes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of coordination, fainting;
- low levels of sodium in the body — headache, confusion, slurred speech, severe weakness, vomiting, feeling unsteady.
- problems with memory or concentration;
- headache, drowsiness;
- dry mouth, increased sweating;
- numbness or tingling;
- increased appetite, nausea, diarrhea, gas;
- fast heartbeats, feeling shaky;
- sleep problems (insomnia), feeling tired;
- cold symptoms such as stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat;
- changes in weight;
- difficulty having an orgasm.
Yup, “numbness … sleep problems and … difficulty having an orgasm.” Sounds like something a zombie would experience, doesn’t it? It sounds kind of depressing if you ask me.
Sure, modern-day psychopharmaceuticals may be wonder drugs for many, but they also have the potential to totally inhibit the kinds of normal responding that would have facilitated survival and reproduction among our ancestors. In short, SSRIs might make some people feel “happy,” but they also have the capacity to make many others emotionally and behaviorally damp. And under ancestral conditions, such a state was not exactly conducive to success.
The Opioid Crisis in Evolutionary Perspective
In case you haven’t noticed, the United States is currently experiencing a huge opioid problem. Narcan trainings are in dire need in small communities across the nation. And people from all kinds of demographics are dying of overdoses, leaving entire families and communities in states of traumatic shock.
Many opioids, such as codeine, are being prescribed for psychological uses. Codeine is increasingly becoming a solution of choice for migraine headaches, for instance. And, in fact, various opioids are being prescribed for a broad array of pain-related symptoms.
Such medications provide strong short-term solutions, and they are often essential for many people in providing a reduction of pain in a dramatic and effective way. But at what cost? The human pain system evolved, after all, because it was adaptive. Because it served a biological function.
Sure, happiness is great. But, as Nicole Wedberg and I argue in our new book, Positive Evolutionary Psychology, it is only a short-term goal when it comes to being human.
The modern psychopharmacological industry is, like any industry in a capitalist nation, focused on short-term profits and fiscal gain.
According to a report by the American Psychological Association, more than 10 percent of American adults have taken some form of SSRI in the past month. And SSRIs, which famously have a broad range of adverse psychological and physical side effects, represent only a slice of the psychopharmaceuticals out there.
We are becoming a nation of zombies right in front of our own eyes. In my estimation, we can’t look to the business world or to Washington to solve this one. Our social and emotional psychology is a human issue. It is our issue. And as complex and nuanced as it may seem, it is up to us to solve this. An evolutionary perspective on the human experience will help.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to all-star students Nicole Elyukin and Ann Marie Debonis for inspiring this post.
Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Guitar, A, E., Glass, D. J., Geher, G., & Suvak, M. K. (2018). Situation-specific emotional states: Testing Nesse and Ellsworth’s (2009) model of emotions for situations that arise in goal pursuit using virtual-world software. Current Psychology.
Keller, M. C., & Nesse, R. M. (2006). The evolutionary significance of depressive symptoms: Different life events lead to different depressive symptom patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 316-330.