Anti-Anxiety Meds: Options, Side Effects & Alternatives

Precautions you need to consider while taking anti-anxiety medications

In 2006, as she was preparing for her wedding, panic attacks began to take over Kara Baskin’s life. “I worried constantly that I was on the edge of bankruptcy, or dying of cancer, or that my fiancé was about to be fired from his job,” she explains. “My fears and my panic kept me home from social events, caused me to fight with my fiancé, and led me to the emergency room with imagined heart attack.”

Things didn’t improve after the wedding. On her dream honeymoon to Hawaii, she spent most of the time not on the beach, but back in her room with her heart racing. She realized she needed help. Back home, she found a therapist and through a combination of medication and talk therapy was able to get her panic under control. Today she uses the medication only as needed.

Kara is one of an estimated 40 million adult Americans — 18.1 percent — who suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. While other therapies are available (see Therapy, Meditation, Sleep and Exercise Can Help Lessen Anxiety), many people with anxiety disorder will find their lives so disrupted that they will need the immediate relief that medication provides. While side effects of these are generally mild, there are precautions you need to take if you choose this route.

What is Anxiety Disorder?

The term “anxiety disorder” actually encompasses several different conditions: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks, social anxiety, specific phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some anxiety is normal — even helpful. But for people with anxiety disorder, symptoms are so severe and frequent that they interfere with daily life. “For example, being a little anxious about an upcoming test can help you perform better,” says Katherine M. Moore, MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. “A person with anxiety disorder may be so anxious that she can’t study productively or go to school on the day of the test.”

Symptoms of anxiety disorder can be mental (racing thoughts, constant worrying, restlessness and difficulty concentrating) and physical (heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, dizziness and chills or hot flashes). These symptoms can be so severe that they interfere with your relationships, keep you from being able to enjoy your life, or even make it difficult for you to leave your home.

Anti-Anxiety Meds and Their Side Effects

For patients who need to get these symptoms under control, the first choice of medication is usually either SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as Celexa, Lexapro, Luvox, Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft) or SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, such as Efflexor and Cymbalta). Both these medication types increase the serotonin available in the brain. SNRIs also increase the availability of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Both serotonin and norepinephrine improve mood. These medications are effective for all anxiety disorders, and SNRIs are particularly helpful in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

Side effects of these medications are generally mild and go away after the first few weeks of treatment. They can include insomnia, headache, sexual dysfunction, weight gain and nausea.

Even if you are pursuing other treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, your doctor may recommend that you try one of these medications. “We often can do therapy without medication,” explains O. Joseph Bienvenu, MD, Phd, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore. “But it requires a lot of work and courage on the part of the patient. Sometimes medication just gives people the courage to pursue other treatments.”

While taking these medications, it’s best to limit your consumption of alcohol, says Dr. Moore. “Because, like alcohol, these medications are metabolized through the liver, while you are taking them you will feel the effects of alcohol more quickly,” she explains. It’s also important to not stop these medications suddenly. If you decide to stop taking them, work with your doctor to taper off the medication gradually, she says.

Another class of medications, benzodiazepines (including Klonopin, Xanax and Ativan), is sometimes prescribed for short-term management of severe symptoms, “if somebody has social phobia or panic symptoms so severe that she can’t leave her house,” for example, Dr. Moore says. They can also be used occasionally. “For example, if somebody with a fear of flying travels a couple of times a year, a dose before a flight can be helpful,” she explains.

The main concern with the ongoing use of benzodiazepenes is dependence and addiction, Moore says. With prolonged use, you may find you need to increase the dosage to achieve the same effect, she explains. For this reason, it is best to limit use them only occasionally or, if daily, for no more than 3 to 4 months, she Tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, imipramine, and nortriptyline can also help control symptoms. But doctors avoid prescribing them because of their side effects, including low blood pressure, constipation, urinary retention, dry mouth and blurry vision.

Special Concerns for Women

The dramatic hormonal changes of pregnancy and the post-partum period can make this “a time when women with pre-existing anxiety disorders may see worsening of symptoms, and a time when new symptoms can emerge,” says Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, MPH, Director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program at UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, in Chapel Hill, NC.

Changing levels of the stress hormone cortisol at this time also combine with the outside stresses of adjusting to parenthood to make new mothers more susceptible to developing anxiety, she says. While some anxiety at this time is normal, she says, “seek help if you feel the anxiety is making it difficult for you to manage or to enjoy your baby,” she says.

“Many anti-anxiety medications are considered safe in pregnancy and while breastfeeding, she says. It is hard to give an exact list of safe medications,” she says, “because it needs to be discussed on a case-by-case basis.” So much depends on other factors, including the severity of the symptoms, previous response to treatment, and the dose prescribed, she explains. It’s important to discuss your own situation with your doctor before taking these medications in pregnancy. At this time, it may be best to combine behavioral therapy, which teaches you skills to manage your anxiety, with interpersonal therapy, which helps you manage the complex relationships with your spouse, baby, and your child’s grandparents at this difficult time. A November 2000 study of 120 women published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that interpersonal psychotherapy is an “effective alternative to medication in the post-partum period.”

A Winning Combination

Whatever your stage of life, many people, like Kara, find that medication is most helpful when combined with some type of therapy. “The medication put me in the frame of mind to take that next step and get the help I needed,” she says. “Therapy helped me to be more aware of my mind and my body, to feel more in control, and to be aware of what makes me anxious. Now that I know what my triggers are, I can prepare myself if I know I am going to be in a stressful situation.”

Ellen Wlody is a writer who specializes in health and parenting topics. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, children, and two dogs.


Ellen Wlody

Ellen Wlody is a writer who specializes in health and parenting topics. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, children, and two dogs.

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