When diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you probably have questions about medication. Should you take it? Will it help? If you take medication, do you need to do anything else? Are there side-effects of medications? Is it worth it?
While we can't answer the last question or even decide for you whether anxiety medication is a good option for you, we can give you some information to help you and your doctor decide whether medication will be a part of your treatment.
Many people with anxiety disorders choose to use medication to help reduce symptoms. But medication does not cure anxiety and often doesn't entirely get rid of your anxiety. It can, however, help to reduce the symptoms, allowing you to implement some lifestyle changes and begin other treatment options so you can learn how to manage your anxiety symptoms.
Responding to a question on ABC News about anxiety medications, Philip G. Levendusky, Ph.D. said, "Medication is one component of an effective treatment program for anxiety disorders. Most typically, the combination of medication with other psychological interventions is looked at as the ultimate strategy for dealing with anxiety disorders."
Types of medications
In order to decide if medication is right for you, it is important to understand what types of medications are commonly used to treat anxiety.
Anti-anxiety medication - These medications, benzodiazepines, are often called tranquilizers. They work by slowing down the central nervous system and making you feel calm and relaxed. Besides anxiety, these types of medications are used as sleep aids and muscle relaxers. Benzodiazepines are fast-acting, which means you do not need to let them build up in your system before feeling relief from anxiety symptoms. Usually, they begin working about one half hour after being taken.
Antidepressants - Medications that have been approved to treat depression may also help to relieve symptoms of anxiety. These medications must be taken daily. It takes approximately four to six weeks of use before feeling the full effect of the medication, unlike benzodiazepines, which can be taken as soon as you begin to feel anxious.
Antidepressants, however, have a lesser chance of being abused and the risk of dependency is lower than some anti-anxiety medications.
Beta-blockers - These medications have traditionally been used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions. They work by blocking norepinephrine, the stress hormone that is involved in the fight-or-flight response. These types of medications may help with phobias, or mild forms of social anxiety, performance anxiety, or fear of flying. These medications can be taken prior to an anxiety-producing event to help calm you. Beta blockers do not alleviate the psychological causes of anxiety, but they can reduce some of the associated physical symptoms. Studies do not support the routine use of beta-blockers for either generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder.
Side effects of anxiety medications
Just as it is important to know about how the different types of medications can help, it is also important to be aware of possible side effects.
All medications have some side effects, although not all people have difficulty taking medications. Some may not feel side effects at all, others may have only mild side effects, and some may find the side effects disappear after a few weeks. You will need to weight the benefits of taking the medication to the potential for side effects.
Some of the common side effects of benzodiazepines:
- Drowsiness (sometimes used as a sleep aid)
- Clumsiness and inability to react quickly
- Forgetfulness, loss of memory, impaired judgment, confusion
- Slurred speech, blurred vision
Some of the common side effects of antidepressants:
- Weight gain
- Sexual dysfunction
- Increased nervousness
Some of the common side effects of beta-blockers:
- Light-headedness or dizziness
Again, each person may experience side effects differently and each type of medication may have many different side effects. Do some research on the medication you have been prescribed so you know what to expect.
Questions to ask your doctor
Before beginning any medication, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of using medication. You will need to decide if the benefits outweigh the possible side effects. To help you make the right decision for your situation, ask your doctor the following questions:
How do you expect this medication to help my anxiety?
Will I need additional treatment besides medication?
What are the side effects of this particular medication?
How long do you expect me to be on this medication?
Will I experience withdrawal or need to be weaned off this medication when I stop?
Are there foods or drinks I should avoid while taking this medication?
Do I need to take this medication every day or just when I feel anxious?
What non-medication treatments are available? How will they help?
Will I be able to lessen the medication as I work on other treatment methods?
What happens when I stop taking the medication? Will my anxiety return?
Can I drink alcohol when taking this medication?
You may have additional questions for your doctor. Be sure to write down your questions ahead of time so you make sure you have all the information you need to make your decision.
Other treatments and lifestyle changes
Medication is only part of the overall treatment for anxiety. To effectively treat anxiety, you want to make lifestyle changes, such as adding exercise to your daily routine, eating right, getting enough sleep and learning relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing.
In addition, therapy methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, have been found to be as effective, if not more effective, than medication for some people. Even if you choose to begin medication, you may want to begin this type of therapy. Many individuals have been able to lower or discontinue medication after completing CBT.
"How to Get Help for Anxiety Disorders," 2009, July 7, National Institute for Mental Health
"Medication," Date Unknown, Author Unknown, Anxiety Disorders Association of America
"What Medications Are Used to Treat Anxiety Disorders," 2011, Feb 25, National Institutes for Mental Health