Medication treatment of anxiety is generally safe and effective and is often used in conjunction with therapy. Medication may be a short-term or long-term treatment option, depending on severity of symptoms, other medical conditions, and other individual circumstances. However, it often takes time and patience to find the drug that works best for you.
Medications are commonly prescribed by physicians (family practice, pediatricians, OB-GYNs, psychiatrists), as well as nurse practitioners in many states.
More than one in 10 Americans take antidepressants, the primary type of medication used by people ages 18 to 44. Learn more about how these drugs work.
Variety of Medications
Four major classes of medications are used in the treatment of anxiety disorders:
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
SSRIs relieve symptoms by blocking the reabsorption, or reuptake, of serotonin by certain nerve cells in the brain. This leaves more serotonin available, which improves mood. SSRIs (citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine, paroxetine, and sertraline) generally produced fewer side effects when compared with tricyclic antidepressants. However, common side effects include insomnia or sleepiness, sexual dysfunction, and weight gain. They are considered an effective treatment for all anxiety disorders, although the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, typically requires higher doses.
Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)
The serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, or SNRI, class (venlafaxine and duloxetine) is notable for a dual mechanism of action: increasing the levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine by inhibiting their reabsorption into cells in the brain. As with other medications, side effects may occur, including stomach upset, insomnia, headache, sexual dysfunction, and minor increase in blood pressure. These medications are considered as effective as SSRIs, so they are also considered a first-line treatment, particularly for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder.
This class of drugs is frequently used for short-term management of anxiety. Benzodiazepines (alprazolam, clonazepam, diazepam, and lorazepam) are highly effective in promoting relaxation and reducing muscular tension and other physical symptoms of anxiety. Long-term use may require increased doses to achieve the same effect, which may lead to problems related to tolerance and dependence.
Concerns about long-term use of the benzodiazepines led many doctors to favor tricyclic antidepressants (amitriptyline, imipramine, and nortriptyline). Although effective in the treatment of anxiety, they can cause significant side effects, including orthostatic hypotension (drop in blood pressure on standing), constipation, urinary retention, dry mouth, and blurry vision.
Contact your physician if you experience side effects, even if you are not sure a symptom is caused by a medication. Do not stop taking a medication without consulting with the prescribing physician; abrupt discontinuation may cause other health risks.
Medications will work only if they are taken according the explicit instructions of your physician, but they may not resolve all symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
Clinical trials have shown that ketamine can lift depression in hours, or even minutes, much faster than the most commonly used antidepressant medications available today; they often take weeks to take effect. Also, the antidepressant effects of a single dose of ketamine can last for a week or longer. But it also has properties that make it a potential drug of abuse, which limits its usefulness as a depression medication.
Read more about ketamine and depression in this Feb. 1, 2016 Washington Post article.
Discussing Medications: What You Need to Know
Use these guidelines to talk to your health care professional about medications:
- To avoid potentially dangerous drug interactions, let your mental health care provider know all medications you are taking, including prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs, herbal or dietary supplements, and vitamins. And make sure your family doctor knows you are taking medications for an anxiety disorder.
- Ask these questions about a new prescription: How will the medication help me? What side effects might occur? Should I avoid any foods or beverages? Are drug interactions with other prescriptions a possibility?
- Learn when to take a new medication and how, such as on any empty stomach or with food, in the morning or evening, and how frequently.
- Find out how long it should take for the medication to start working and what you should expect when this happens.
- Ask for the prescribing physician’s after-hours phone number in case you develop side effects.
- A good source of information about medications and over-the-counter products is your pharmacist, who should have information about all your prescriptions to advise you about possible drug interactions, side effects, and instructions for use.
- Ask how often you should see the doctor for a medication check-up.
If your physician does not want to spend the time to answer your questions, you may need a referral to a different physician.
Patient-Assistance Programs for Prescription Drugs
Most pharmaceutical companies offer patient-assistance programs for uninsured patients. These programs provide prescribed medication at little to no cost. Eligibility varies; see the Partnership for Prescription Assistance website for more information, or contact companies directly about their patient assistance programs.
- Community Assistance Program (CAP) provides free downloadable prescription cards accepted at over 56,000 pharmacies. Cardholders receive the lowest price available for any particular drug at their chosen pharmacy.
- NeedyMeds is a 501(c)(3) national non-profit information resource dedicated to helping people locate assistance programs to help them afford their medications and other healthcare costs. ADAA is partnering with NeedyMeds to provide information resource pages about various anxiety and depression related disorders.