Anxiety medication: Types, side effects, and how therapy can help medication work better

Over 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder. And for those who seek treatment, anxiety medication is often the foundation of successful symptom management, alongside therapy. If you’ve been diagnosed with a form of anxiety, or if you think you may have a form of anxiety, you might be curious about medications that could help, especially about how they work and what kinds are available. There are many types of anxiety medications available, and not all of them work in the same ways. 

While anxiety medications can’t magically cure someone, they can drastically improve their ability to manage their symptoms and reduce symptom severity. A provider who specializes in anxiety can provide effective treatment, but the first step is for the client to reach out. 

Does Anxiety Medication Actually Help with Anxiety?

A variety of anxiety medications have been clinically proven to offer most clients significant relief from their anxiety symptoms. Kate Hanselman, PHMNP at Thriveworks, explains that “Because there is no one-size-fits-all medication, the right medication for each person will provide the most symptom relief with the lowest side-effect burden possible at the appropriate dosage. For some medications, specific timing of the medication can be beneficial as well.” 

That said, as mentioned, most people respond best to a blend of therapy and anxiety medication. Hanselman has typically observed that “Some people do well with therapy alone, but this is typically most helpful for people with mild to moderate anxiety. For many, a combination of therapy and medication provides the most relief.”

The blended approach offers the best results because anxiety medication is designed to treat the symptoms of anxiety and, as Hanselman reminds us, “Therapy is helpful to target long-term tools to support coping and thriving.”

This means that anti-anxiety medication is not an instant cure but is still a powerful tool. 

What Are the Best Anti-Anxiety Medications? And How Do They Work?

There are several medication varieties used to treat anxiety disorders: 

Each medication works differently, offering unique benefits and possible side effects. Learn more below. 

Antidepressants

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are a type of antidepressant that is highly effective against anxiety symptoms.  

SSRIs make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, more available in the brain—and this helps to reduce the fear, agitation, and stress associated with anxiety disorders. SSRIs and other antidepressant medications may take four to six weeks, or longer, to become fully effective.

Other effective antidepressants that are sometimes used as anxiety medications include serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). They function similarly to SSRIs, but also affect the circulation of norepinephrine in the brain, not just serotonin. 

Buspirone

Buspirone is another anxiety medication typically used to treat generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It is often prescribed together with an antidepressant, and may take 2 to 4 weeks to achieve results. One of the key benefits of buspirone, compared to other anxiety medications is that, unlike benzodiazepines, there is no widely-recognized risk of dependence or withdrawals. 

Hydroxyzine

Hydroxyzine is another medication that a psychiatric provider may prescribe for anxiety. It’s actually an antihistamine that’s used to treat allergic reactions, but due to its mild sedative effects (at the right dose), it can be helpful to treat anxiety symptoms.

One of the key benefits of hydroxyzine is that it acts quickly, but isn’t addictive. Hydroxyzine can cause drowsiness, which can aid in alleviating insomnia, but may render the user unable to complete complex tasks such as driving or operating heavy machinery.

Beta-Blockers

For clients suffering from phobias or panic disorder, a heart medication, known as a beta-blocker might be prescribed to them. Beta-blockers are sometimes referred to as beta-adrenergic blocking agents, and are medications that work to reduce blood pressure; they’re often prescribed for individuals with heart conditions. 

Beta-blockers work to alleviate anxiety by blocking the effects of adrenaline which is often released during panic attacks. According to Hanselman, “Beta-blockers can be particularly helpful in reducing the physical symptoms related to anxiety.”

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are another type of anxiety medication that works to help relieve anxiety by generating a sedative effect. This class of anxiety medication works rapidly and can relieve someone’s anxiety for several hours at a time. 

While benzodiazepines work quickly and effectively, Hanselman notes that “Clients can also develop tolerance and dependence, which means they’ll continue to require larger and larger doses to receive the same effect, and can be at risk for withdrawal symptoms if they discontinue the medication too quickly.” Benzodiazepines are also potentially addictive if used for long periods. For this reason, or this reason, benzodiazepines are usually limited to short-term use.

Because antidepressants may take 4-6 weeks to take effect, benzodiazepines may be prescribed when antidepressant medication is first prescribed. 

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What Does It Feel Like to Be on Anti-Anxiety Medications?

When a medication is working properly for a client with an anxiety disorder, they may report benefits such as: 

  • Improved concentration
  • Improved sleep 
  • Better emotional regulation skills
  • Increased critical thinking skills
  • Decreased anxious mood and fewer worries
  • Decreased physical symptoms of anxiety like sweating, fidgeting, or nervous tics
  • Fewer panic attacks
  • Improved social skills
  • Improved job performance
  • And many other subjective benefits 

Psychiatric providers work hard to ensure that any prescribed medication will be a good fit for a client, working as intended, and with minimal (if any) side effects. However, it’s possible that medications can cause unwanted side effects, especially if used improperly, or if the dosage or time of day that the prescription is taken isn’t quite right. 

Some of the most commonly experienced side effects of anxiety medications include: 

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Nightmares

If the side effects of a prescription begin to interfere with your daily tasks, or if you feel uncomfortable physically or mentally because of a medication you’re taking, schedule an appointment with your psychiatric provider. They can help you to adjust your medication, explore other possible causes of your side effects, or even find a new medication. 

Therapy and Lifestyle Changes Can Also Help

As mentioned before, therapy works to complement anxiety medications by teaching you new ways to cope with and understand your anxiety. The most commonly employed approaches include: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common type of psychotherapy in general but is perhaps the most successful therapy for moderate anxiety symptoms. CBT can teach you to recognize harmful thought patterns and behaviors that lead to (or worsen) anxiety. With assistance from a therapist, you can then correct behaviors and unconscious patterns strategically, in accomplishable steps. 
  • Exposure therapy is another therapeutic method, one that’s often helpful for reducing anxiety related to phobias. Exposure therapy helps you gradually start to engage with the situations, objects, or environments that create anxiety. 

A provider may also offer a client stress management techniques to help supplement the benefits of their medication. These techniques may vary, from controlled breathing exercises to progressive muscle relaxation methods that all aim to reduce anxiety and its physical manifestations.

In addition to the right medication and therapeutic approach, lifestyle changes are often necessary for the best results. Getting enough quality sleep, exercising, and avoiding alcohol, drugs, and excessive caffeine may help reduce anxiety.

It’s also not uncommon for people with anxiety to struggle socially. Having access to a support group—peers who understand the symptoms of anxiety and who can share their experiences, as well—can also be highly beneficial.

Can an Online Psychiatrist Prescribe Anxiety Medication for Me?

Yes. Online psychiatry, which is also known as telepsychiatry, just refers to psychiatric care that is provided over a secure telehealth connection via video call. This means that you don’t have to visit your doctor or nurse practitioner at a brick-and-mortar location.

Research shows that both telepsychiatry clients and their providers are happy with their treatment outcomes—and it appears to be just as effective as in-person care. Anxiety disorders can often go undiagnosed and untreated. Fortunately, online psychiatric treatment can help. 

The right anxiety medication may work to improve your quality of life, alleviating the excess stress, worries, and fear that are holding you back. If you believe that you or a loved one may be suffering from an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, medication, in addition to therapy, could make a drastic difference. 

Table of contents

Does Anxiety Medication Actually Help with Anxiety?

What Are the Best Anti-Anxiety Medications? And How Do They Work?

What Does It Feel Like to Be on Anti-Anxiety Medications?

Therapy and Lifestyle Changes Can Also Help

Can an Online Psychiatrist Prescribe Anxiety Medication for Me?

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  • Medical reviewer
  • Writer
Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

Jason Crosby

Jason Crosby

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

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