Most people feel anxious at some points in their lives, and the feeling often goes away by itself. But an anxiety disorder is different. If you’ve been diagnosed with one, you’ll likely need treatment. Treatment typically consists of psychotherapy and medication.
While drugs don’t cure anxiety, they can help you manage your symptoms so you can function well and feel better in your day-to-day life. Many types of medications are available. Because each person is different, you and your doctor may have to try several medications to find the right one for you.
Benzodiazepines are sedatives that can help relax your muscles and calm your mind. They work by increasing the effects of certain neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that relay messages between your brain cells.
Benzodiazepines help treat many kinds of anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. Examples of these drugs include:
- alprazolam (Xanax)
- chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
- clonazepam (Klonopin)
- diazepam (Valium)
- lorazepam (Ativan)
Benzodiazepines are typically used for short-term treatment of anxiety. This is because they can increase drowsiness and cause problems with balance and memory. They can also be habit-forming, and there’s an increasing epidemic of benzodiazepine abuse. It’s important to use these drugs only as a short-term option for anxiety treatment until your doctor prescribes other treatment. However, if you have panic disorder, your doctor may prescribe benzodiazepines for up to one year.
Buspirone is used to treat both short-term anxiety and chronic (long-lasting) anxiety disorders. It’s not fully understood how buspirone works, but it’s thought to affect chemicals in the brain that regulate mood.
Buspirone can take up to several weeks to become fully effective. Side effects can include dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Buspirone is available as a generic drug as well as the brand-name drug Buspar.
Antidepressant medications work by affecting neurotransmitters. These drugs can be used to treat anxiety symptoms, but they usually take four to six weeks to produce noticeable effects. Types of antidepressants include:
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work by increasing levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, sexual desire, appetite, sleep, and memory. SSRIs are typically started at low doses that are gradually increased by your doctor.
Examples of SSRIs used to treat anxiety include:
SSRIs can cause several kinds of side effects, but most people tolerate them well. These side effects can include:
- dry mouth
- muscle weakness
- sexual dysfunction
Tricyclics work as well as SSRIs do for treating most anxiety disorders except obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s thought that tricyclics work similarly to SSRIs. And like SSRIs, tricyclics are started at a low dose and then increased gradually.
Examples of tricyclics used for anxiety include:
Tricyclics are older drugs that are used less often today because newer drugs cause fewer side effects. Side effects of tricyclics can include dizziness, drowsiness, lack of energy, and dry mouth. They can also include nausea and vomiting, constipation, blurred vision, and weight gain. Side effects can often be controlled by changing the dose or switching to another tricyclic.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are used to treat panic disorder and social phobia. They work by increasing the amount of certain neurotransmitters that regulate mood.
MAOIs approved by the FDA to treat depression but used off-label for anxiety include:
Like tricyclics, MAOIs are older drugs that cause more side effects than newer drugs. MAOIs also come with certain restrictions. For instance, if you take an MAOI, you can’t eat certain foods, such as cheese and red wine. You also can’t take certain medications, including SSRIs, some birth control pills, pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, cold and allergy medications, and herbal supplements. Using an MAOI with these foods or medications can dangerously increase your blood pressure and cause other potentially life-threatening side effects.
Beta-blockers are most often used to treat heart conditions. They’re also used off-label to help relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety, especially in social anxiety disorder.
Your doctor may prescribe a beta-blocker such as propranolol (Inderal) to help reduce your anxiety symptoms in stressful situations, such as attending a party or giving a speech.
A medical doctor or mental health professional can help you find the best course of treatment for your anxiety disorder. Proper treatment will likely include psychotherapy and medication.
Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions when taking anxiety medications, and let your doctor know about any side effects you have. Also, be sure to ask your doctor any questions you have about your condition or your treatment, such as:
- What side effects could I have from this medication?
- How long will it take to start working?
- Does this medication interact with any other drugs I’m taking?
- Can you refer me to a psychotherapist?
- Could exercise help relieve my anxiety symptoms?