Anxiety Treatment: 5 Myths about Taking Medication

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

In a previous post I wrote about weighing the pros and cons of taking medication to treat your anxiety. One of the reasons many people decide not to take medication to treat their anxiety or other mental health disorders is because they have inaccurate information. There is a lot of wrong information out there about medication in general which is perpetuated by myths and half-truths. Unfortunately for all the good that the Internet does for patients (providing support, resources, and accurate information) there is also the dark side. The global power of the Internet can mean that misinformation can spread like a virus, infecting patients with fear. So let's take a look at some of the more common myths about anti-anxiety medication and put these to rest.

One of the best things you can do as a patient is to become educated and informed about your treatment options. Medication may not be right for you. But at least know the real facts before you make your decision.

Myth #1: If you take anti-anxiety medication you will become addicted.

While it is true that some medications prescribed to treat anxiety may have a warning label that they may be habit forming doesn't mean that you will automatically become an out of control dope addict if you take one. Yes there are people who abuse drugs including both prescription drugs and illegal drugs. There are those who take benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc) for example, and combine them with street drugs to get high. But this does not mean that the patient who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and is taking doctor prescribed medication to treat that anxiety disorder is an addict. There is a huge difference between using a medication to treat the symptoms of a disorder and abusing a drug (taking it illegally without a prescription, or taking far more than a prescribed dosage, for the purpose of getting high or because you are behaviorally and physically dependent on the drug). There are plenty of patients who take their medication responsibly, only taking the dose prescribed by their doctor.

Please Note: If you do have any type of substance abuse or addiction problems you need to tell your doctor this information before they prescribe you anti-anxiety medication.

Myth #2: Taking "natural" substances such as herbs, vitamins, and supplements is safer and better for you than taking a prescription medication to treat anxiety.

I am all for the holistic approach to treating mental illness. I am taking SAM-e, for example, a natural supplement to treat my depression. But there is something important you should know about supplements and that is that that they are not FDA regulated. That long list of warnings you get with your prescription medication may be totally absent on your supplements. This is because not only are they are not regulated, it may also be the case that there is little to no research about the side effects, interactions, or withdrawal symptoms for that particular supplement. Add to this, some supplements or vitamins may have extra ingredients or fillers that may be harmful. It is truly buyer beware when it comes to supplements.

"Natural" does not always equate with safe. The supplement, Kava, for example, has been named by Consumer Reports as a supplement to avoid due to the possibility of liver damage. The other thing to keep in mind is that a supplement may simply not have the strength to successfully tame your symptoms of anxiety. In some cases prescription medication is going to be able to reduce your symptoms of anxiety more quickly and effectively than other "natural" remedies.

Myth #3: You are weak willed if you cannot overcome your anxiety without medication.

This is probably the most stigmatizing of the myths about taking medication in general to treat mental health problems. Having an anxiety disorder such as panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, or generalized anxiety does not mean you lack courage or are deficient in your strength of character. It simply means that you may have a different biological and neurological make-up than other people. Even the best therapy may not be as effective to treat the symptoms of your anxiety disorder as the combination of therapy and medication combined. And you don't really use medication to "overcome" anxiety as much as take the edge off so that you can function in the day to day. The use of medication may also enable you to be receptive to learning stress and anxiety reduction techniques. One usually learns best when they feel relaxed and not wired with anxiety

Myth# 4: Once you take medication for your anxiety, you will need it forever.

Although some people may use medication for long term symptom relief, others may take anti-anxiety medication temporarily. It really depends on the type of anxiety disorder you have, the severity of your symptoms, and what you and your doctor decide as appropriate treatment. For example I have been prescribed Xanax, but a bottle of 20-.5mg pills can last me for months. I only use it for extreme anxiety and for plane rides (I have an extreme fear of flying). If I know beforehand that my plane ride may include some turbulence I take my Xanax and it helps me tremendously to get though the flight. But on other occasions I opt not to take it and attempt to use other relaxation techniques to endure my time in the air. Everyone is unique with different needs. Just because you may agree to use medication does not automatically mean that you will take it forever. There is a lot of ground in between where some people take medication rarely or temporarily and others need it for long term use so that they can function in the day to day.

Myth #5: Taking medication to treat your anxiety will mess up your body and your health.

Go to any forum where patients discuss medication and you will undoubtedly hear from some people who have horror stories to tell about how the side effects of a particular medication has ruined their life. Therefore, they surmise, all medication is bad for everyone. Sure, there will be scary stories out there. But this doesn't mean that these things will happen to you. Everyone responds to medication differently. We all have a unique body chemistry and will metabolize medication in our own way. Nobody can really predict what will happen when you take a pill. This is true if you are taking aspirin or an anti-psychotic. The best you can do is to do your homework and research the drug you plan on taking. Read the horror stories and the success stories. Chances are that your experience is going to fall somewhere within the extremes.

Look up the statistics and the research on the safety and efficacy of your medication. Know the possible side effects, interactions, and withdrawal symptoms. Know the warning signs of any serious side effects so that you can call the doctor immediately. Make sure you have a back -up plan if the side effects are too extreme.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there is a risk to everything you do or don't do. One of our wise members pointed out in a comment recently that untreated anxiety can take a severe toll on our health. Extreme and chronic anxiety has been linked to a multitude of medical illnesses including headaches, stomach problems, acne, psoriasis, asthma, and even heart disease. Chronic anxiety can end up destroying your medical and mental health. Don't let it do this to you.

Medication is not for everyone. But it is one tool in our arsenal to battle anxiety and related symptoms. Before you make the decision that medication is not a viable choice for you, know the facts. Don't make assumptions based on people's opinions or the horror stories you may hear. Talk with your doctor. You will need a medical and/or mental health professional to guide you through the process of selecting an anxiety treatment which is right for you.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."