Anxiety Medication

What You Need to Know About Anti-Anxiety Drugs

In This Article

Worrying can be helpful when it spurs you to take action and solve a problem. But if you’re preoccupied with “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios, worry becomes a problem. Unrelenting doubts and fears can be paralyzing. They can sap your emotional energy, send your anxiety levels soaring, and interfere with your daily life. But chronic worrying is a mental habit that can be broken. You can train your brain to stay calm and look at life from a more positive perspective.

Understanding anxiety medication

This information is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice. If you are taking a medication for anxiety, do not change your dosage without consulting your physician!

Many different types of medications are used in the treatment of anxiety disorders, including traditional anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepines, and newer options like antidepressants and beta-blockers.

These medications can be very effective, but they shouldn’t be thought of as a cure. Anxiety medication can provide temporary relief, but it doesn’t treat the underlying cause of the anxiety disorder. Once you stop taking the drug, the anxiety symptoms often return in full force.

It’s important to be aware of the risks of anxiety medication, too. Anxiety medication can cause a wide range of unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects. Many medications for anxiety are also habit forming and physically addictive, making it difficult to stop taking them once you’ve started.

The bottom line

If you have anxiety that’s severe enough to interfere with your ability to function, medication may be right for you. However, many people use anti-anxiety medication when therapy, exercise, or self-help strategies would work just as well or better—minus the side effects and risks.

Therapy and self-help strategies can help you get to the bottom of your underlying issues and develop the tools to beat anxiety for good. So while drug treatment can be beneficial, it’s by no means the only answer. There are other effective treatment approaches that can be taken in addition to or instead of medications. It's up to you to evaluate your options and decide what's best for you.

Anti-anxiety drugs (tranquilizers / benzodiazepines)

Anti-anxiety drugs, also known as tranquilizers, are medications that relieve anxiety by slowing down the central nervous system. Their relaxing and calming effects have made them very popular: anti-anxiety drugs are the most widely prescribed type of medication for anxiety. They are also prescribed as sleeping pills and muscle relaxants.

Benzodiazepines are the most common class of anti-anxiety drugs. They include:

  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)

Benzodiazepines are fast acting—typically bringing relief within thirty minutes to an hour. Because they work quickly, benzodiazepines are very effective when taken during a panic attack or another overwhelming anxiety episode. But despite their potent anti-anxiety effects, they have their drawbacks.

Side effects of anti-anxiety drugs

Anti-anxiety drugs like benzodiazepines work by reducing brain activity. While this temporarily relieves anxiety, it can also lead to unwanted side effects.

The higher the dose, the more pronounced these side effects typically become. However, some people feel sleepy, foggy, and uncoordinated even on low doses of

benzodiazepines, which can cause problems with work, school, or everyday activities such as driving. Some even feel a medication hangover the next day.

Because benzodiazepines are metabolized slowly, the medication can build up in the body when used over longer periods of time. The result is oversedation. People who are oversedated may look like they’re drunk.

Common side-effects of benzodiazepines or tranquilizers

  • Drowsiness, lack of energy
  • Clumsiness, slow reflexes
  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Depression
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness
  • Impaired thinking and judgment
  • Memory loss, forgetfulness
  • Nausea, stomach upset
  • Blurred or double vision

Benzodiazepines are also associated with depression. Long-term benzodiazepine users are often depressed, and higher doses are believed to increase the risk of both depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, benzodiazepines can cause emotional blunting or numbness. The medication relieves the anxiety, but it also blocks feelings of pleasure or pain.

Paradoxical effects of anti-anxiety drugs

  • Aggressive or impulsive behavior
  • Hallucinations

While rare, these adverse effects are dangerous. Paradoxical reactions to these anxiety medications are most common in children, the elderly, and people with developmental disabilities.

Other types of medications for anxiety

Because of the many safety concerns linked to anti-anxiety drugs, other medications for treating anxiety have gained in popularity. The alternatives to the anti-anxiety tranquilizers include antidepressants, buspirone, and beta blockers.

Antidepressant medications for anxiety

Many medications originally approved for the treatment of depression have been found to relieve symptoms of anxiety. These include certain selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and the newer atypical antidepressants.

Antidepressants are often preferred over the traditional anti-anxiety drugs because the risk for dependency and abuse is smaller. However, antidepressants take up to 4 to 6 weeks to begin relieving anxiety symptoms, so they can’t be taken “as needed.” For example, antidepressants wouldn’t help at all if you waited until you were having a panic attack to take them. Their use is limited to chronic anxiety problems that require ongoing treatment.

The antidepressants most widely prescribed for anxiety are SSRIs such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro, and Celexa. These work by regulating serotonin levels in the brain to elevate mood and have been used to treat panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Common side effects include:

  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach upset
  • Weight gain

Although physical dependence is not as quick to develop with antidepressants, withdrawal can still be an issue. If discontinued too quickly, antidepressant withdrawal can trigger symptoms such as extreme depression and fatigue, irritability, anxiety, flu-like symptoms, and insomnia.

Antidepressant suicide risk

All antidepressants are required by the FDA to carry a warning about the risk of suicidal thoughts, hostility, and agitation. There is also the risk that antidepressants will cause an increase, rather than a decrease, in depression and anxiety.

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