Medication is one effective way to manage anxiety — and when it comes to anxiety meds, you’ve got options.
If you have anxiety, you might be wondering if medication could help you manage your symptoms. Chances are it could.
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition, affecting some 40 million U.S. adults, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). Despite being very treatable, only about 37% of people with anxiety seek care.
There are different types of anxiety disorders, and you can have more than one. Some of the most common include:
Antidepressants are the most common medication used to treat anxiety.
Along with antidepressants, several other classes of meds encompass anxiolytics — aka anti-anxiety medications. They’re effective and tend to work better when used alongside therapy.
Anxiety is believed to be caused by a combination of factors like genetics, environment, and brain chemistry.
Anti-anxiety medications help minimize the symptoms of anxiety, while antidepressants affect neurotransmitters in the brain.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that work to keep our brains functioning while also affecting our moods. Low levels or an imbalance of neurotransmitters may contribute to certain mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
Antidepressants can help by increasing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin.
Not all anti-anxiety meds are the same. Some, like benzodiazepines, are designed to work quickly in the body to reduce symptoms. Others, such as antidepressants, can take several weeks for you to notice a change in how you feel.
Everyone will respond differently to medications. If one isn’t working for you, you can always speak with your doctor to see if you should adjust your dose or switch to a new med.
There are several anti-anxiety medications available, such as antidepressants and anxiolytic drugs.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
SSRIs work by regulating and increasing the levels of serotonin in your brain.
They can be used for treating all types of anxiety, but depending on your experience and condition, you may need higher doses.
In general, side effects of SSRIs can include:
- dry mouth
- low sex drive
- sexual dysfunction
- weight gain
Some examples of SSRIs include:
Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
SNRIs work similarly to SSRIs — more specifically, they help increase levels of serotonin and norepinephrine.
SNRIs are frequently prescribed for all kinds of anxiety disorders, and their side effects are very similar to those of SSRIs.
Examples of SNRIs for anxiety include:
Tricyclics — aka TCAs — are an older type of antidepressant that work like SNRIs. They can be used for treating some anxiety disorders, but not social anxiety.
Because newer medications have fewer side effects, tricyclics aren’t used as often anymore. Side effects can include:
- dry mouth
- blurred vision
- trouble urinating
- weight gain
- a drop in blood pressure when standing up
Examples of tricyclics for anxiety include:
This class of meds can be used to treat all forms of anxiety. Because it’s faster acting, benzodiazepines are often prescribed for short-term use alongside a maintenance medication (like an antidepressant) if you have high or chronic anxiety.
If you experience high anxiety or panic in certain situations — such as flying or going to the dentist — your doctor might prescribe a benzodiazepine.
Benzodiazepines work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which decreases nerve activity.
While benzodiazepines can be highly effective, they also have higher potential for dependence and withdrawal, so they aren’t typically prescribed as a long-term solution.
Even if you’ve only taken a benzodiazepine for a few weeks, it’s possible to have intense withdrawal symptoms. And because of how quickly dependence can happen with these meds — within a few weeks of use — the FDA has released some
If you take these meds as prescribed by your doctor, you can minimize your chances of complications. If you have any questions, you can reach out to your doctor or pharmacist.
Side effects of benzodiazepines include:
If your doctor prescribes a benzodiazepine for anxiety, it might be:
Buspirone (BuSpar) can work to treat anxiety in both the short and long term. It’s most commonly used to treat generalized anxiety disorder.
Buspirone works by increasing serotonin to help reduce anxiety. Since it can take time to build up in your system, it’s usually not the best option if you have a condition that requires fast-acting relief, like if you’re experiencing a panic attack.
Side effects can include:
- strange dreams
Beta-blockers can be used off-label for anxiety, meaning they’re prescribed for a condition that’s different from what it was originally intended.
These medications are mainly used to help decrease blood pressure and allow people to manage certain heart conditions. They can be helpful for some physical symptoms of anxiety — like a racing heart beat.
Propranolol is one of the most commonly prescribed beta-blockers for anxiety. It can be used to treat social anxiety.
Side effects are generally minimal and might include:
- dry mouth
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
MAOIs were originally used for depression, but healthcare professionals sometimes prescribe them off-label for anxiety.
MAOIs work differently than SSRIs and SNRIs by blocking the chemical monoamine oxidase from the body. This chemical is responsible for decreasing the levels of certain neurotransmitters. Inhibiting monoamine oxidase gives the neurotransmitters a chance to increase, and this can improve your mood.
While MAOIs do work for some people, they aren’t prescribed as often anymore due to the availability of newer types of medications with less side effects. These meds can also interact with certain foods, causing health issues.
MAOIs can be used to treat most forms of anxiety, but may work best for panic disorder and social anxiety. Potential side effects include:
- dry mouth
- problems with urination
- weight gain
- decreased libido and erection problems
If you’re prescribed an MAOI for anxiety, it might be:
- isocarboxazid (Marplan)
- phenelzine (Nardil)
- tranylcypromine (Parnate)
- selegiline (Emsam)
If you’re looking to get a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, one of the first steps is talking with the right healthcare professional. Typically, the following can prescribe medications:
- nurse practitioners
- physician assistants
Your healthcare professional may want to first do a physical exam to make sure your anxiety isn’t actually caused by another medical condition and check on your overall health.
They might ask questions like:
- “When did your anxiety start?”
- “What symptoms are you experiencing?”
- “Do you have any other mental health conditions?”
- “Have you tried other medications in the past to treat anxiety?”
When taken as prescribed, anti-anxiety medications are generally safe.
If you’re thinking about discontinuing an anti-anxiety medication, it’s important to check in with your doctor first. Most of these medications need to be tapered off slowly, rather than stopping all at once.
Everyone’s body will react differently to the tapering process. During this process, you might still experience symptoms like:
- digestive issues
- trouble sleeping
- problems with balance
These symptoms are usually short-lived, but it can be helpful to know what to expect. It’s key to take your medications as prescribed and check with your doctor before making any changes.
Some medications (like benzodiazepines) can cause your body to become dependent. This means that stopping them — especially without tapering off — can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as:
- nausea and vomiting
If you stop taking an SSRI suddenly, you might experience antidepressant discontinuation syndrome, which affects
Certain anti-anxiety medications — particularly antidepressants — can potentially have serious side effects when you first start them. These side effects can include suicidal thoughts, and these may be more common in children and young adults.
If you let your doctor know about these side effects as soon as they appear, they can help you address them.
Anxiety medications are an effective way to treat your anxiety, but it’s important to take them as prescribed and keep your doctor informed of any side effects or reactions you might have.
As with any condition, finding the right treatments may involve some trial and error. It’s completely natural to need to adjust your dose or switch meds to find the right ones for you.