Medication can be an effective approach for managing various types of anxiety such as panic, hyperarousal, and constant worry. However, contrary to popular belief and subtle messages from pharmaceutical companies, medication is far from a cure. In fact, when it comes to “cures” for most psychiatric conditions, the data tends to support psychotherapy.
For example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) responds very well to psychotherapy, whereas the positive effects of medication are somewhat limited. The same is true for panic disorder. Although certain types of medication are very good at relieving panic symptoms in the short term, once the person stops taking the medication, the anxiety returns.
The same has not been found for cognitive and behavioral therapies. Still, medication is helpful in many cases. It is often most effective when used in combination with psychotherapy, often referred to as combined or integrated treatment. Some of the more commonly used anxiety medications are listed below.
Antidepressants are most commonly used to treat anxiety, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications influence the brain chemical serotonin, a naturally occurring substance responsible for myriad emotional and behavioral processes. Anxiety is one of them.
Although it may seem strange that a person with anxiety would be prescribed an antidepressant, serotonin is related to both depression and anxiety. Initially these medications were studied for their antidepressant effects. In addition to improving mood, it became clear that they improved social anxiety, panic, obsessive worry and compulsions, and trauma-related symptoms. But, since depression was the initial focus in clinical research trials, the label of “antidepressants” stuck.
The more common SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), and escitalopram (Lexapro). SSRIs are considered safe, but are not free from side effects. The most commonly reported side effects include insomnia, sexual dysfunction, and stomach discomfort.
It’s also important to note that antidepressants in general carry a federally issued warning of increased suicide behavior for people in their mid-20s and younger. This warning is based on a relatively recent discovery that young people who take antidepressants may have a slightly higher risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors compared to those who don’t take medication.