Anxiety Medications 101: Navigating Through Your Options for Calm

Anxiety doesn't just live in the mind; it affects your body, relationships, and quality of life. Treatment can include medication, therapy, lifestyle adjustments, and mindfulness practices, among others. Often the best treatment is a combination of these things.

March 6, 2024
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Article clinically reviewed by Haley Collins, NP

Anxiety, a common but complex beast, weaves its way into our lives, showing up as incessant worry, tension, and a slew of physical symptoms that can range from mildly irritating to completely debilitating. It's not just the occasional stress before a big event; it's a persistent whisper of dread that colors your every day. Given that anxiety disorders are the most common mental health challenge in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, it's likely you or someone close to you knows this struggle intimately.

Anxiety doesn't just live in the mind; it affects your body, relationships, and quality of life. While some anxiety is healthy, protective, and normal, If you’re experiencing persistent anxiety, it might be time to consider treatment options. Treatment can include medication, therapy, lifestyle adjustments, and mindfulness practices, among others. Often the best treatment is a combination of these things.

When to Consider Treatment

You might consider seeking treatment if you experience:

  • Excessive worry or fear (what’s “excessive”? If you’re wondering, it’s a good time to check in with a professional!)
  • Restlessness or feeling on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical symptoms such as muscle tension, palpitations, shortness of breath
  • Sleep disturbances

Persistent symptoms, particularly those lasting more than six months, could indicate an anxiety disorder. Consulting with a healthcare provider can help you understand your symptoms and decide on the best approach to treatment. You don’t have to commit to any particular path when you decide to consult a healthcare provider, you can just get some more information and support. 

What about Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks, characterized by intense and abrupt surges of fear or discomfort, can manifest with physical symptoms like heart palpitations and shortness of breath, peaking swiftly, typically within minutes. These episodes, while alarming, aren't always indicative of an anxiety disorder. They can occur in various contexts, including as isolated incidents or part of other conditions. Your healthcare provider can work with you on a nuanced approach to diagnosis and treatment of panic attacks and/or anxiety. Understanding the specific nature of panic attacks is crucial in tailoring effective treatment strategies, whether through medication, therapy, or lifestyle adjustments, ensuring a targeted response to your unique mental health landscape.

Starting Anxiety Medication

Anxiety medications are prescribed after a comprehensive evaluation by a healthcare provider, who will consider your symptoms, health history, and other medications you might be taking. This individualized care ensures the medication chosen is best suited to your needs, enhancing its effectiveness while minimizing side effects. Your health care provider may start by also evaluating your symptoms for other possible medical causes like thyroid dysfunction, metabolic issues, or other medical disorders.

Note, you don't need to see a psychiatrist to get a prescription for anxiety medication. Primary care providers, including all FOLX clinicians, can prescribe and manage these medications, guiding you toward additional treatment options as needed.

Patience with Medication

It's crucial to understand that anxiety medications often require time to fully take effect. While some symptoms may improve relatively quickly, it can sometimes take several weeks to notice a significant reduction in anxiety levels. During this period, maintaining open communication with your healthcare provider is key to fine-tuning your treatment for the best results. 

FOLX Clinician Haley Collins, NP, shares “During this time it can be a good idea to keep a journal of your symptoms and experience. Sometimes bringing more awareness to your emotions and body can help you identify the changes and see improvements more clearly.”

Types of Commonly Prescribed Anxiety Medications

Anxiety medications, or anxiolytics, work by altering brain chemistry to reduce anxiety symptoms. They're part of a broader treatment plan and can significantly improve quality of life. Here's an overview of common types:

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRIs, such as escitalopram (Lexapro) and paroxetine (Paxil), are frequently used to treat anxiety (and other mental health conditions) due to their efficacy and relatively mild side-effect profile. These medications increase serotonin levels in the brain, which can help regulate mood and reduce anxiety. Most people consider these medications as only antidepressants, but they are commonly and effectively used to manage anxiety disorders.

Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)

SNRIs, like venlafaxine (Effexor XR) and duloxetine (Cymbalta), boost both serotonin and norepinephrine levels. This dual action can be especially effective for anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. These medications share similar side effects with SSRIs, but may also include night sweats and increase in blood pressure.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan) offer rapid relief of anxiety symptoms but are generally prescribed for short-term use due to the risk of dependency. They are effective in treating acute anxiety episodes but are used cautiously because of their potential for addiction. It is particularly important with these medications if taking them daily that they not be stopped abruptly as it can cause serious withdrawal symptoms.

Buspirone

Buspirone is a medication specifically designed to treat chronic anxiety, with a lower risk of dependency compared to benzodiazepines. It's often prescribed for generalized anxiety disorder and can take several weeks to become fully effective. This medication is typically given daily, but can also be taken as needed in some cases. 

Beta-Blockers

Though primarily used for heart conditions, beta-blockers like propranolol can help manage physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat and tremors, particularly in social anxiety disorder. These medications work by blocking epinephrine that helps reduce the fight or flight response. Beta-blockers are considered an “off-label” treatment for anxiety. Off-label means the medication is FDA-approved to treat a different condition. Off-label use of a medication is often when it is supported by evidence.

Antihistamines

One antihistamine that is also FDA-approved for the treatment of anxiety is hydroxyzine. This medication is used for its sedating effects, and often used in place of benzodiazepines for the treatment of acute anxiety as it does not carry the risk for dependency. This medication can cause the typical antihistamine side effects like drowsiness, dry mouth, and constipation.

Choosing the Right Medication

Finding the right anxiety medication often involves a trial-and-error process. Open dialogue with your healthcare provider is crucial for tailoring a treatment plan that meets your needs while minimizing side effects. Remember that sometimes trying a different medication in the same class can be effective. This is due to the different chemical structure of each medication.

FOLX: Your Partner in Anxiety Management

FOLX recognizes the unique challenges of mental health, particularly within the LGBTQIA+ community. Our holistic, empathetic approach ensures you receive care that honors your individual journey. We offer virtual consultations to provide a supportive space for discussing your mental health, including anxiety, and crafting a personalized treatment plan with our LGBTQIA+ specialized providers.

Taking steps toward managing anxiety is a brave choice. With FOLX, you're not alone; we're here to guide you with compassionate, comprehensive care that respects who you are. Join our community on a shared journey toward wellness, where support and understanding await at every turn.

FAQs about Anxiety Medications

How do I know if I need anxiety medication?

If anxiety significantly impacts your daily life, causing distress or hindering your ability to function, it might be time to explore treatment options with a healthcare provider. They can evaluate your specific symptoms and situation to determine if medications could be helpful. 

What are the side effects of anxiety medications?

Side effects vary by medication and individual but can include drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, and headaches. Many people find these effects manageable, and they often decrease over time. If you experience side effects while taking medications for anxiety, please discuss them with your prescriber.

How long do anxiety medications take to work?

Some anxiety medications, like SSRIs and SNRIs, may take several weeks to show full effects. Benzodiazepines can provide quicker relief. It's important to have patience and maintain communication with your healthcare provider during this period.

Can I stop taking anxiety medication if I feel better?

Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to your medication regimen. Abruptly stopping some anxiety medications can lead to withdrawal symptoms or a return of anxiety symptoms. Sometimes the withdrawal symptoms with certain medications can cause more serious complications.

How does FOLX support individuals with anxiety?

FOLX offers personalized, LGBTQIA+ affirming care, including medication management, therapy, mindfulness resources, and support groups. Our virtual consultations provide a safe space to discuss treatment options, ensuring you receive care that aligns with your unique needs and identity.

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FOLX Health is the first digital healthcare company designed by and for the LGBTQIA+ community. Our services include virtual primary care, gender-affirming hormone therapy including estrogen and testosterone (HRT), mental health care, sexual and reproductive health care, preventive care, and fertility consultations. FOLX memberships give you access to LGBTQIA+ expert clinicians, peer support, thousands of LGBTQIA+ resources, and more. Whether you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, gender non-conforming, or nonbinary, you can find LGBTQIA+-specialized health care that helps you meet your wellness goals. FOLX Health is health care that's queer all year. Get all the benefits of becoming a FOLX member and sign up today!

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