Zoloft for anxiety and depression: Everything you need to know
If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression—for instance, changes in mood, nervousness, panic attacks, or hopelessness, you’re far from alone. Anxiety affects close to 40 million Americans each year, interfering with daily tasks and overall quality of life.
Fortunately, there are treatment options available to help manage symptoms, including lifestyle changes, therapy, and medications. One medication that’s widely prescribed by mental health professionals and approved by the FDA for anxiety and depression is Zoloft, which is proven to be safe and effective for most individuals.
If you’re just starting with Zoloft or curious to learn more to determine if it might be right for you, read on to learn everything you need to know.
What is Zoloft?
Zoloft is the brand name for sertraline, an antidepressant that belongs to a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It’s used to treat a list of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, by increasing serotonin levels in your brain.
It’s a prescription drug, meaning you can’t get it over the counter. After seeing a psychiatrist (or other licensed provider) and receiving a diagnosis, you may be prescribed Zoloft to help manage anxiety, depression, or another condition.
Zoloft was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1991 and is one of the most common antidepressants in the U.S., with more than 30 million prescriptions written for it each year.
How does Zoloft work?
Zoloft is an antidepressant in the SSRI family, meaning it works by balancing levels of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger in the brain that plays a vital role in regulating your mood, emotions, and other physiological processes. It’s often referred to as your “feel-good” chemical because of its impact on your mood and well-being.
Serotonin is made from nerve cells called neurons and sends signals in the gap between these nerve cells called a synapse that affects your mood. After these signals are passed on, any excess serotonin is usually reabsorbed in a process known as reuptake to keep serotonin levels balanced.
But for people who experience depression and anxiety, there’s often an imbalance in serotonin levels. Zoloft works by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin. Meaning, it blocks the reuptake process so more serotonin is able to stay in the synapse for a longer period. This amplifies the communication of signals between the neurons to boost mood and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Plus, when taking Zoloft for a longer period of time, it may help your brain adapt to this increased serotonin activity level and adjust the sensitivity and availability of your serotonin receptors. This can affect your brain’s neuroplasticity, your brain’s ability to alter and reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. As a result, this can lead to changes in thought patterns, emotional responses, and behaviors, aiding in the long-term management of anxiety and depression.
Put simply: Zoloft helps boost serotonin levels in your brain to improve your mood and lessen the symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Keep in mind that Zoloft, like any other SSRI, can become less effective over time.
If you're interested in learning about other medications, check out: Prozac for anxiety and depression.
What conditions does Zoloft treat?
With millions of prescriptions written each year, Zoloft is approved by the FDA to treat a handful of disorders. Including:
- Major depressive disorder (MDD): Zoloft is approved by the FDA for treating symptoms of depression, which includes persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities.
- Social anxiety disorder: Zoloft can be prescribed to manage symptoms of anxiety and fear in social situations.
- Panic disorder: Zoloft can help lessen the frequency and severity of panic attacks of intense fear and anxiety that occur suddenly.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Zoloft is approved to treat OCD, which is characterized by intrusive, distressing thoughts and repetitive behaviors or mental acts.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Zoloft can sometimes be used to alleviate symptoms of PTSD, which includes flashbacks, nightmares, and hypervigilance after a traumatic event.
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD): Zoloft can be used to help with emotional and physical symptoms that some people experience leading up to menstruation.
Zoloft isn’t used to treat alcoholism, but in treating people’s underlying depression or anxiety it can reduce the tendency to self-medicate with alcohol.
On top of the conditions listed above, doctors may also prescribe Zoloft “off-label.” What does that mean? While Zoloft was designed to treat certain conditions, like anxiety and depression, experts have noticed it’s also very effective at treating some other conditions. Some off-label uses include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Binge eating disorder
- Body dysmorphic disorder
- Hot flashes
- Premature ejaculation
While Zoloft isn’t specifically designed for these conditions, many doctors prescribe Zoloft to help alleviate symptoms as part of a larger treatment strategy.
What are the side effects of Zoloft?
While Zoloft offers many benefits and can be effective in managing anxiety and depression, among other mental health conditions, it can also have mild to serious side effects for some people. Often times these side effects are temporary and some side effects can occur due to drug interactions with other medications or supplements. So having regularly scheduled appointments to manage your symptoms as well as side effects is a great idea. It’s important to be transparent and keep your doctor informed – they may adjust your dosage if necessary. Common side effects include:
- Dry mouth
- Shaking or tremors
- Sleep disturbances, such as difficulty sleeping
- Sexual dysfunction
Though less common, some people may find that their existing symptoms of anxiety and depression worsen when taking Zoloft, such as:
- Changes in mood or behavior
- Weight gain or weight loss
- New or worsening symptoms of anxiety
- New or worsening panic attacks
- New or worsening depression
- Suicidal thoughts or thoughts about self-harm
If you experience any of these side effects or have an allergic reaction (including skin rashes or hives) it’s important to openly communicate with your doctor or go to the ER right away. They can provide medical advice to help manage symptoms or adjust the dosage if necessary.
How do you use Zoloft for anxiety and depression?
Zoloft is available as tablets, capsules, or a liquid solution—all of which are taken by the mouth. The starting dosage varies between people since your doctor will recommend it based on your condition, your response to it, and any potential interactions with other medications you might be taking. Oftentimes, a dose of around 50 mg per day is commonly prescribed to help treat depression and anxiety disorders, but many patients need higher doses.
Usually, Zoloft is taken once a day—either in the morning or evening, but it’s best to try to take it at the same time each day to maintain a consistent level of medication within your system. And, as more of a tip than a rule, taking it with food can help lessen potential side effects, like nausea.
As with all prescription medication, it’s always important to take medication as directed—follow the dose prescribed by your provider. Taking more than the recommended dose won’t increase the benefits or speed up the process. Taking too much sertraline (Zoloft) can be harmful and increase your risk for serotonin syndrome. This occurs when serotonin levels are too high and can cause mild to fatal symptoms of shivering, diarrhea, muscle rigidity, seizures, and death if not treated.
How long does it take Zoloft to work?
How quickly you start seeing results can depend on many factors, like the dosage prescribed and the medical condition it's being used to treat. And while some people might start feeling benefits within the first couple weeks of starting, on average, most people will notice its effects within 4 to 6 weeks.
To learn more, check out: how long Zoloft takes to work.
If you’ve been taking Zoloft and haven’t noticed changes in your mood or anxiety, chat with your doctor. They may want to continue or recommend other treatment options. Do not stop taking it without seeking proper medical advice. Even if you don’t notice its effects, stopping antidepressant medications can lead to withdrawal symptoms or cause antidepressant discontinuation syndrome, which can lead to insomnia, imbalance, and sensory disturbances, like electric- or shock-like sensations.
Also, though it may seem tempting, Zoloft shouldn’t be abruptly discontinued when you start feeling better either. Any changes to your antidepressant medication, whether it’s altering the dose or discontinuing should be done gradually and safely under the guidance of your doctor.
Is Zoloft a good choice for my anxiety?
If you’re experiencing mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or other conditions, it may be related to an imbalance of brain chemicals like serotonin. SSRIs like Zoloft may help boost serotonin levels to alleviate symptoms that disrupt your quality of life and allow you to get control of your life back.
The first step to treating any anxiety disorder is getting a diagnosis from a qualified mental health practitioner. Professional treatment can make a major impact in your symptoms and quality of life. At Talkiatry, treatment strategies include a combination of therapy and medications, and you can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home. To get started, take our free online assessment to get matched with a psychiatrist.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and more.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Sophia Monsour holds the position of Chief Psychiatrist for Pennsylvania at Talkiatry. After completing residency in 2013 at Albany Medical Center, she has spent the past 9 years fulfilling her passion for integrated and specialty care for adults suffering from mental illness. Her years of experience has included working as an integrated care Psychiatrist at a community health center, a medical director of a Partial Hospital and Intensive Outpatient Program (PHP/IOP), and also working for an Assertive Community Treatment Team (ACT) specializing in the Serious Mentally Ill (SMI) population.
Most recently, she has been serving our veterans as the Outpatient Section Chief, Primary/Mental Health Integration Medical Director and Resident/Medical Student Coordinator at VA Pittsburgh. Dr. Monsour has an approachable style when treating individuals who suffer from various diagnoses, especially those with prior trauma. She provides supportive psychotherapy and at times uses psychodynamic therapy skills to address her patient’s current stressors and to identify the root cause of their ailment. She believes in a holistic approach and utilizes mindfulness as a technique along with medication management.