What is Lexapro? (Escitalopram)

Jordan Kadish
November 4, 2022

There are a handful of types of SSRIs commonly prescribed to treat both anxiety and depression. One of the most commonly used SSRIs is Escitalopram, more popularly referred to as “Lexapro.” It is known as a “first-choice” medication for anxiety disorders and depression because of its researched effectiveness, lack of dangerous side effects compared to other medications, and low cost. The decision about which SSRI is best for you is best left up to your doctor’s expertise. If you believe Lexapro may work for you, consult your doctor. 

How does Lexapro work?

Like all other SSRIs, Lexapro works to increase the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries messages from your nerve cells to your brain and throughout the rest of your body, affecting how your body works. Serotonin positively affects your mood, emotions, ability to sleep, sex drive, and memory. When the brain produces a normal amount of serotonin, it helps regulate and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. However, some individuals have a lower level of serotonin in their brains than is typical, which can cause mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Taking SSRIs like Lexapro helps increase your serotonin levels, making you more susceptible to emotion regulation techniques and therapy and improving an overall more positive mood [1]. 

Lexapro was made commercially available to the US in 2002 [2], and since then, about 30 million Americans are prescribed Lexapro to improve their mental health [3]. Although SSRIs were created primarily for the treatment of depression, they have completely revolutionized the treatment of anxiety and have become a “first-line” medication for anxiety [4]. The emergence of SSRIs in 1974 de-popularized the use of benzodiazepines to treat anxiety disorders, as SSRIs have been considered safer and less addictive than other anxiety-treating medications. This is why SSRIs, an antidepressant group of medications, are so commonly used to treat anxiety and depression. 

Lexapro Side Effects: 

You may experience side effects when taking Lexapro, especially when taking it for the first few weeks. These side effects usually subside after 4 weeks of consistently taking the medication. If side effects persist, or you experience a serious side effect listed below, contact your doctor immediately. 

Common Side Effects: 

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Anxiousness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sexual problems
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Lack of appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Infection

Serious Side Effects: 

  • Agitation, hallucinations, or other changes in mental status
  • Coordination problems or muscle twitching (overactive reflexes)
  • Racing heartbeat
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Fever
  • Muscle rigidity
  • Thinking or memory problems
  • Seizures

Lexapro Withdrawal: 

Although Lexapro and other SSRIs are generally not addictive, there are ways to misuse Lexapro that can create a dependency on the drug. SSRIs do not create feelings of euphoria when used, meaning that they will not get one high. However, some try to amplify the effects of the SSRI by combining it with the use of other substances, like alcohol, which counts as misuse and can create dependency. Combining SSRIs and alcohol can create dangerous symptoms, like sedation, high blood pressure, and even overdose [5]. 

For most, withdrawal symptoms are only experienced when one abruptly stops taking an SSRI medication. This is often referred to as “Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome.” Even if your anxiety and depression subside, do not stop taking Lexapro unless your doctor advises. Lexapro, like other SSRIs, must be tapered gradually over about 6-8 weeks to avoid withdrawal symptoms. 

Lexapro withdrawal typically has two stages. The first stage begins right after someone stops taking Lexapro. Although the symptoms may be uncomfortable, they are often just a heightened version of the side effects one experiences when first starting the medication. These symptoms are common for those coming off of the medication. 

Stage One Withdrawal Symptoms: 

  • Agitation
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • “Zaps,” or the sensation of electrical jolts that course through a person’s body

A few weeks after discontinuing Lexapro, some may experience the second stage of withdrawal, which tends to be more extreme. The symptoms experienced in stage two are less common than those experienced in stage one but tend to last much longer. An exact timeline cannot be determined, as everyone reacts to withdrawal differently, but there has been a substantial number of individuals who reported that it took months, or even a year, to fully recover. 

Stage Two Withdrawal Symptoms: 

  • Increased Anxiety and Depression
  • Persistent Insomnia 
  • Disturbed/Irritable Mood
  • Impaired Concentration and Memory 
  • Poor Stress Tolerance 

It is very important for you to keep your doctor updated on your use of medications like Lexapro. Medical professionals are knowledgeable on how to best wean you off of the medication in a way that can help reduce withdrawal symptoms as much as possible. 

Eleanor Health is here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in Florida, LouisianaMassachusettsNorth CarolinaNew JerseyOhioTexas, and Washington.

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Jordan Kadish

Jordan Kadish graduated Magna Cum Laude from The College of New Jersey with a B.A. in Psychology and a Minor in Gender Studies. Jordan is passionate about all things mental health & wellness and is thrilled to be able to help her community in any way possible.

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