Although it is normal to experience some level of anxiety at times, intense or persistent anxiety may be indicative of a disorder. Medications are available to treat anxiety disorders. A person may take these alone or in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or another kind of therapy.

The term anxiety encompasses feelings of worry, fear, and unease. According to several large surveys, up to 33.7% of people experience some form of anxiety disorder during their lifetime.

This article discusses the main types of anxiety medication and lists their risks and side effects.

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Several types of medication can treat the symptoms of anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the four major classes of drugs for anxiety disorders are:

1. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors

Although selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a type of antidepressant, doctors can prescribe them to people with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to one article, doctors consider SSRIs to be the first-line drug treatment for anxiety.

SSRIs work by stopping nerve cells in the brain from reabsorbing serotonin, which is a chemical that plays a vital role in mood regulation.

Examples of SSRIs for anxiety include:

These medications typically begin to take effect within 2–6 weeks, but they may not work for everyone. People usually take SSRIs for 6–12 months to treat anxiety and then gradually reduce the dosage.

These drugs are not habit-forming, meaning that they do not usually lead to dependence.

People should consult a doctor or physician before they start reducing or stopping their medication.

2. Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors

Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are another class of antidepressant that treat depression and anxiety. Doctors may also prescribe them to treat some chronic pain conditions.

The ADAA notes that medical professionals also consider SNRIs to be the first-line treatment for anxiety. However, they are not as effective in treating OCD.

These medications work by reducing the brain’s reabsorption of the chemicals serotonin and norepinephrine.

Examples of SNRIs for anxiety are:

As with SSRIs, SNRIs can take several weeks to have an effect.

Learn more about SNRI drugs here.

3. Tricyclic antidepressants

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are an older class of antidepressant drug. Although they may be effective for the treatment of depression and anxiety, doctors often prescribe SSRIs instead as they cause fewer side effects.

However, TCAs may be useful for some people, especially if other medications do not provide relief.

These medications work by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin and norephinephrine. This increases the levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain.

Examples of TCAs for anxiety include:

Learn more about TCAs here.

4. Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are a type of sedative drug that reduces the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as tense muscles. These drugs also encourage relaxation, and their effects take place quickly.

DailyMed notes that peak levels in the blood happen 1–2 hours after a person takes their dose. People may feel the effects sooner than this.

Benzodiazepines include:

  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • diazepam (Valium)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)

Although they are highly effective for short-term issues, doctors rarely prescribe benzodiazepines because they become less effective over time and can be addictive.

Due to these risks, experts suggest that doctors do not prescribe the continuous use of benzodiazepines for more than 6 months.

Some people may take benzodiazepines to manage short-term anxiety. For example, people with a fear of flying may take them before a flight.

At times, people can take a benzodiazepine alongside an SSRI for 2–4 weeks until the SSRI takes effect.

Learn more about the benefits and risks of benzodiazepines here.

Other medications for anxiety

Many other medicines may help treat anxiety, although doctors usually only prescribe them if SSRIs or similar drugs do not work.

Other medications for anxiety include:

Beta-blockers

Beta-blockers are a common medication for people with high blood pressure and heart conditions. However, doctors may prescribe them off-label for anxiety in certain situations.

Beta-blockers reduce the effects of norepinephrine, meaning that they can relieve some of the physical symptoms of anxiety. Examples of beta-blockers include atenolol (Tenormin) and propranolol (Inderal).

Buspirone

This anti-anxiety medication may treat short- or long-term anxiety symptoms.

Buspirone (BuSpar) works much more slowly than benzodiazepines and may not treat all types of anxiety disorder, but it causes fewer side effects and has a lower risk of dependency.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are one of the earliest types of antidepressant. Doctors may prescribe them off-label to treat the symptoms of panic disorder and social phobia. Types of MAOI include:

  • isocarboxazid (Marplan)
  • phenelzine (Nardil)
  • selegiline (Emsam)
  • tranylcypromine (Parnate)

Antidepressants and other drugs for anxiety have the potential to cause side effects in some people.

These often resolve after a few weeks, but it is crucial to see a doctor if they are intolerable or do not subside.

Some doctors may recommend taking anxiety medications with food to minimize side effects or taking them before bed if the drug does not interfere with sleep.

The side effects that a person experiences may vary depending on the type of medication.

SSRIs

The side effects of SSRIs can include:

SNRIs

The side effects of SNRIs are similar to those of SSRIs and include:

TCAs

Side effects vary among TCAs as they work in different ways. Possible side effects include:

  • blurry vision
  • constipation
  • difficulty urinating
  • dry mouth
  • drowsiness
  • increase in appetite
  • lightheadedness
  • low blood pressure after standing up
  • sexual problems or erectile dysfunction
  • sweating more than usual
  • tremors
  • weight loss or gain

Benzodiazepines

These medications can cause several side effects, such as:

  • blurry vision
  • confusion
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness or fatigue
  • headaches
  • loss of memory or concentration
  • problems with balance, coordination, or speech
  • an upset stomach

Benzodiazepines also carry certain risks. For example, they can cause physical dependence, even after a short period of use. Withdrawal from benzodiazepines may lead to:

  • anxiety and restlessness
  • depression
  • sleep problems
  • sweating
  • seizures

More severe risks of benzodiazepines may include:

  • addiction
  • cognitive decline
  • hip fractures
  • motor vehicle accidents as benzodiazepines can affect a person’s ability to drive
  • overdose, especially in combination with opioid drugs or alcohol

Beta-blockers

Possible side effects of beta-blockers include:

  • cold hands and feet
  • depression
  • extreme tiredness
  • low blood pressure
  • shortness of breath
  • sleep problems
  • weight gain

People with asthma should avoid beta-blockers. People with diabetes should take them with caution and speak with a doctor about the possible risks.

Buspirone

The side effects of buspirone may include:

  • blurry vision
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • dry mouth
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • muscle pains
  • nausea
  • poor concentration
  • restlessness or nervousness
  • sleep problems
  • sweating
  • weakness

MAOIs

Potential side effects of MAOIs include:

  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • difficulty urinating
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • dry mouth
  • headaches
  • low blood pressure
  • nausea
  • sexual dysfunction
  • sleep problems
  • sweating
  • weight gain

These medications also interact with several other drugs as well as some foods and drinks. Anyone taking MAOIs should ask their doctor for a complete list of the medicines, foods, and drinks they need to avoid.

In 2004, the FDA required all antidepressants to carry a black-boxed warning relating to the risk of suicide in children and young adults.

People under 25 years of age may experience an increase in suicidal thoughts and behaviors while taking antidepressants.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Click here for more links and local resources.

A person may wish to try the following to help treat anxiety:

Some people may experience relief from anxiety through hobbies, such as painting or playing music.

There is also evidence to suggest that spending time with pets may be beneficial to people with a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety.

Learn more about how to treat anxiety here.

A common type of therapy for anxiety is CBT. CBT helps people to change their thoughts and behaviors by analyzing what may be causing them anxiety. It appears to be an effective form of therapy for treating anxiety disorders.

There are many other different approaches to therapy, and what is right for one person may not work for someone else. People should try a variety until they find what works for them.

Learn more about the different types of therapy here.

There are many resources for people experiencing anxiety.

The first point of contact for people not in crisis should be their primary care doctor. If someone is in crisis, they should seek immediate help, such as contacting 911.

People may wish to contact the following organizations for support:

Learn more about the available mental health resources here.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder should speak with a doctor. They may recommend therapy, medications, or a combination of both.

To diagnose an anxiety disorder, doctors will typically carry out a physical examination to check for any underlying conditions and ask a person about their symptoms.

They may also perform a psychological evaluation and compare the person’s symptoms to the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for anxiety disorders.

Anxiety is a common condition that affects many people during their lifetime. Several types of medication can treat anxiety, especially in combination with therapy.

People who have an anxiety disorder should work with a doctor to find the right treatment plan for their needs. If a person notices any side effects from their medication, they should speak with a doctor or pharmacist.

To alleviate side effects, a doctor may adjust the dosage slowly or recommend another medication or form of therapy.

It is essential never to stop taking medication without medical supervision as doing so may cause withdrawal symptoms.