Medication, especially when used in combination with other forms of treatment, can be a powerful tool for treating anxiety. Everybody responds to medication differently; it may work brilliantly for some patients while others may experience little to no symptom relief or suffer from bothersome side effects.
Note: This information is not a substitute for qualified medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or psychiatrist before adding or changing medication doses.
Some of the medications most commonly used for anxiety are:
Benzodiazepines, also known as tranquilizers, are the most commonly prescribed anxiety medication. These drugs work by slowing down the central nervous system, producing feelings of calmness and relaxation. They may also be prescribed as sleep aids or muscle relaxants. Benzodiazepines are typically fast-acting (30-60min), which makes them very effective when taken during a panic attack.
- Fast Acting
- Popularly prescribed
- Useful in acute episodes of panic/anxiety
- Can produce side effects of sleepiness, mental fog, difficulty with coordination
- Possibility of over-sedation
- May produce depression in long-term users
- May cause emotional numbness
- May increase anxiety, irritability, and agitation in some patients
- Rarely, dangerous side effects can occur
- Can be habit-forming/addictive
Buspirone is a newer anti-anxiety medication. While it is still considered a tranquilizer, it has milder side effects than traditional Benzodiazepines. Buspirone works by increasing serotonin levels (like an SSRI) and decreasing dopamine levels in the brain. However, it is slow-acting compared to traditional Benzodiazepines, usually taking about two weeks before symptom relief is experienced.
- Not as sedating as Benzodiazepines
- Doesn’t impair memory/coordination
- No serious drug interactions
- Minimal withdrawal
- Not useful for acute (“as-needed”) symptom relief
- Effective for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, but not for other forms of anxiety
Beta-blocking medications were originally approved to treat heart problems and high blood pressure, however they may be prescribed off-label for anxiety relief. These drugs work by blocking the stress hormone norepinephrine, a chemical involved in the human “fight-or-flight” response. Beta Blockers are most useful for the physical symptoms of anxiety. Some commonly prescribed Beta Blockers include Inderal (propranolol) and Tenormin (atenolol).
- Provide relief from physical symptoms (shaking, rapid heart beat, sweating, etc)
- Helpful for specific phobias and social anxiety
- Can be taken “as-needed”
- Few side effects
- Not habit-forming/addictive
- Not helpful for emotional component of anxiety (stress, worry, etc)
- Not appropriate for people with low blood pressure or certain heart conditions
- Not recommended for people with asthma or respiratory problems
- Not recommended for diabetes patients
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
SSRIs, though originally approved as antidepressants, have been found to give significant symptomatic relief to patients suffering from anxiety. SSRIs work by regulating levels of the chemical Serotonin in the brain, which elevates mood. (Other classes of antidepressants, such as tricyclic antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, and new, “atypical” antidepressants, have also proven effective). The antidepressants most commonly prescribed for anxiety include Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro, and Celexa.
- Lower risk of dependency or abuse
- Useful for chronic anxiety symptoms
- Also useful for depression
- Can still cause withdrawal
- Not useful for acute symptoms– cannot be taken “as-needed”
- Possible risk of suicidal thoughts, hostility, and agitation
- Possible increase in depression and anxiety