If you’ve sought treatment for anxiety, your doctor may have suggested medication to help reduce your symptoms. It’s true that many people find medication for anxiety to be invaluable. However, there are some facts about anxiety treatment you might not know, or that aren't generally discussed, but are helpful in making a decision about anxiety medication.
Medication is one way of treating anxiety, but it isn’t the only one
Many people with anxiety find relief through medication — either through antidepressants or through short-acting, anti-anxiety medications. About half of people taking medications for anxiety experience moderate relief from symptoms, according to the University of North Carolina Department of Psychology (UNC). But medication isn’t the only treatment for anxiety, or the most effective treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) provides “substantial improvements in anxiety symptoms” in 60 percent of those who complete treatment, according to UNC. Once treatment is completed, usually in 12-20 weeks, patients will have gained skills they can use to combat anxiety for the rest of their lives.
CBT isn’t a perfect solution. Roughly 40 percent of people don’t find it helpful and still experience anxiety symptoms. It also takes hard work and persistence to follow through on CBT treatment, which requires facing your fears as well as learning and practicing new skills. In addition, UNC reports it can be difficult to find a therapist with expertise in this type of therapy.
Medication is a valuable tool in treating anxiety. But it isn’t the only treatment available. Before deciding, discuss your options with your doctor.
Some medications take weeks before being effective
There are two types of medications commonly used to treat anxiety disorders. One is benzodiazepines and the other is antidepressants. Benzodiazepines are short-acting medications that usually help within an hour. They may be used to calm an anxiety attack or before facing a stressful situation, for example. The effect of these medications wears off within hours.
Antidepressants often take several weeks before you start to feel better. Once they start to work, they offer more stabilized help by reducing your overall feelings of anxiety throughout the day. But by the time many people seek help for anxiety, they are feeling the effects of anxiety in their daily life. Waiting weeks for a medication to start working seems like a very long time.
When starting an antidepressant for anxiety, be sure to talk to your doctor about short-term strategies you can use in the first few weeks to help reduce anxiety while you are waiting for the medication to take effect.
It often takes time to find the right medication
The term “antidepressant medication” can be misleading. It makes it sound as if there is one type of medication when, in fact, there are several different types of antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Each of these work in a different way, and there are numerous medications within each group.
Before starting medication, there isn’t any way to know which type will benefit you the most. Some people respond best to SSRIs, while others find a different type of anti-anxiety medication more helpful. Given that there are different drugs within each type of medication, finding the right medication and the right dosage is often a matter of trial and error. This process can take months for some people, which means their anxiety symptoms don’t go away for a long time after starting treatment. There are companies working on genetic testing to help determine the best medication for an individual, but this is still unproven.
Anxiety medications aren’t right for everyone
Medications aren’t the answer for everyone. Only about half of people using antidepressants find significant relief. That means for the other half, medications aren’t very effective. On top of that, many people experience side effects. Although each person will experience these differently — and some will not experience side effects at all — some common side effects include: sleep disturbances, daytime sleepiness, headaches, weight gain, sexual side effects such as decreased sexual desire, and thoughts of suicide.
For some people, side effects outweigh the advantages of taking medication. According to a 2009 study, 38 percent of people taking SSRIs reported side effects, but only 25 percent of this group indicated the side effects were very, or extremely, bothersome. If side effects are disrupting your life, your doctor can often adjust the dosage or switch you to a different medication.