Experiencing occasional anxiety is normal. Perhaps you feel it when you are stressed about a problem at work, gearing up for a test, need to make an important decision — or now that the coronavirus is a part of our common experience. But when anxiety involves more than just temporary worry or fear, you may be dealing with something more serious — an anxiety disorder — anxiousness that does not go away and generally gets worse over time. For the nearly 40 million adults in the U.S. experiencing an anxiety disorder, symptoms can interfere with life and negatively impact work and school performance, as well as personal relationships.
Fortunately, anxiety disorders are highly treatable through psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. While drugs cannot cure anxiety, they can help manage anxiety symptoms and improve quality of life. There are many types of medications available, and you and your psychiatrist can determine the best type for your symptoms and experience.
For helping to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and worry, the most common medications are benzodiazepines. This class of anti-anxiety medication is mostly used as first-line treatment for generalized anxiety disorder and works by inducing muscle relaxation and helping calm a person’s mind. As such, benzodiazepines can treat a variety of anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Common examples of this type of anxiety medication include:
- Valium (diazepam)
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
While benzodiazepines have benefits and can be effective, there are — like many medications — some drawbacks to taking them. Side effects may include drowsiness, memory problems, confusion, vision problems, headaches, and feelings of depression. These medications are not typically used over long periods because they can create dependence and cause addiction. In fact, if a person suddenly stops taking benzodiazepines, they may experience withdrawal symptoms and experience an acute return of their anxiety. When the time is right, you and your psychiatrist can safely taper from the medication by slowly decreasing the dose over time. It’s recommended to continue working with a therapist while going off medication and keeping in close contact with your psychiatrist to monitor your symptoms and well-being as you taper.
It is important to note that there is another type of anti-anxiety medication that is a non-benzodiazepine — buspirone. Buspirone is also used to treat chronic anxiety by impacting chemicals in the brain that regulate a person’s mood. It typically takes several weeks for the drug to be fully effective, and side effects sometimes include dizziness, headaches and nausea, as well as difficulty sleeping.
As the name suggests, antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they can also be helpful for treating certain anxiety disorders. This type of medication works by acting on brain chemicals that control a person’s mood — and they may take time to begin to work. When prescribed antidepressants by your psychiatrist, expect them to take up to six weeks before experiencing any noticeable effects to your mood.
Common types of antidepressants include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
Used as a first-line treatment for anxiety, SSRIs and SNRIs increase levels of feel-good serotonin — impacting a person’s mood, appetite, sleep, and memory. Doctors tend to prescribe this class of drug at a low dose and gradually increase it over time. Common examples of SSRIs to treat anxiety include:
- Escitalopram (Lexapro)
- Fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
Side effects of antidepressant medication can include nausea, dry mouth, muscle weakness, dizziness, and drowsiness. And more seriously, in some cases, children, teenagers, and young adults under 25 may experience an increase in thoughts of self-harm or behavior when taking this type of medication — especially in the first few weeks. As a result, psychiatrists and doctors should closely monitor patients of any age the first several weeks of treatment.
Used most often to treat heart conditions, beta-blockers can be taken to relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety in social situations — symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, shaking, trembling, and blushing. Over short periods, these medications can help keep a person’s physical symptoms under control and can be used on an as-needed basis to proactively reduce major performance anxiety. The most common beta-blocker prescribed is propranolol (Inderal), which helps reduce anxiety symptoms.
Beta blockers do not cause side effects for everyone, but there is the potential for fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, trouble sleeping, nausea, and shortness of breath. While these won’t show up for every one, they do occur in some cases.
Choosing The Right Medication For You
Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, and with the right type of medication, you can better manage your symptoms and get back to focusing on your life. Because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to anxiety medication, it is vital to work closely with your psychiatrist or doctor when determining what treatment options are best for you. A medical professional can, based on your medical history, help you find the right dose, treatment plan, and note any possible risks or complications of taking medication for anxiety. With the help of a psychiatrist or doctor, you may also need to try several medicines before finding the right one.
After you are prescribed the medication, some substances — such as caffeine, cold medicines, illicit drugs, and herbal supplements — can exacerbate your symptoms. Continue to work with your psychiatrist to learn more about what substances are safe and which to avoid. Additionally, a medical professional will be able to help you determine how and when a medication should be stopped, as some anxiety medications cannot be stopped abruptly. The key is work closely with your psychiatrist to monitor your anxiety medication’s effectiveness and continually explore effective therapies.