Around 18% of Americans, aged 18 or older, are affected each year by anxiety disorders. That translates into around 40 million people. The two most common treatments for anxiety disorders are medication and therapy. The symptoms of anxiety can be quite overwhelming, particularly at the onset and medications may be prescribed in order to combat these symptoms. The two most widely prescribed types of drugs for anxiety disorder are Benzodiazepines, SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), and SNRI’s (Selective Serotonin-norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors).
Frequently prescribed for short-term use for acute anxiety (panic attacks), benzodiazepines work very quickly. They work by slowing the nervous system and relaxing you both physically and mentally. Some of the more commonly prescribed benzodiazepines are Xanax, Ativan, and Valium.
SSRI’s help anxiety by preventing a particular type of nerve cell located in the brain from reabsorbing serotonin. This leaves more serotonin for use and acts as a mood elevator. One common SSRI is Sertraline (often seen misspelled as “Setraline”).
SNRI’s work in the same manner as SSRI’s, with the exception being that SNRI’s also prevent the reabsorption of norepinephrine as well as serotonin. SNRI’s have the same mood-elevating effect as SSRI’s. Among the most commonly prescribed SNRI is Effexor.
While drugs may offer temporary relief, they are only a short-term solution. Unless you solve the underlying issues, the problem will reappear when you cease to take the medication. While medication can certainly be beneficial and is sometimes necessary to treat anxiety, there are some things that many people don’t know about anxiety drugs.
1. Some anti-anxiety drugs can be habit-forming
Because they are fast acting, typically relieving symptoms within 30 to 60 minutes, benzodiazepines are among the most commonly prescribed class of anxiety medication. Drugs such as Ativan and Xanax are quite effective for panic attacks and other types of overwhelming anxiety episodes. They are however not recommended for long term use because there is a high risk of addiction. SSRI’s and SNRI’s are not physically addictive in the same way as benzodiazepines, but the body can still become accustomed to their presence, making continued use necessary. While SSRI’s and SNRI’s such as Sertraline (widely known as Zoloft) and Effexor are effective and have a lesser risk of addiction, there is still the risk of dependency.
2. Withdrawal can occur even without addiction
When using benzodiazepines regularly, the body develops a tolerance and doses must be increased to get the same results. This can happen very quickly and often leads to addiction. Even without abuse, abruptly stopping benzodiazepine can lead to withdrawal. Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms include: restlessness, shaking, stomach cramps, depression, sweating, confusion, and in extreme cases, seizure.
While SSRI’s and SNRI’s aren’t physically addicting in the same way as benzodiazepines, your body still becomes acclimated to their presence and can suffer serious withdrawal symptoms when use is stopped abruptly. Withdrawal symptoms for SSRI’s and SNRI’s can include insomnia, severe depression, fatigue, irritability, and flu-like symptoms.
3. Anxiety drugs can have serious side effects
Most drugs have some type of side effects that can range from very mild to life-threatening. While in many cases the drug’s benefits outweigh the risks, sometimes the side effects can be as severe as the ailment itself. Each drug has its own specific side effects, but some of the common side effects of benzodiazepines as a class include: drowsiness, dizziness, slurred speech and vision, confusion, stomach upset, and memory problems. Benzodiazepines like Xanax and Ativan can also have paradoxical effects. Rather than slowing down the nervous system, as is typical of this class of drugs, they can sometimes have the opposite effect. Paradoxical effects include mania, aggression, and hallucinations. The elderly and children are most at risk for these side effects.
SSRI’s and SNRI’s such as Sertraline and Effexor can include some of the same side effects as benzodiazepines with additional effects such as dry mouth, increased sweating, nausea, and sexual dysfunction.
4. It often takes more than one kind of medication
While it would seem that SSRI’s and SNRI’s would be a safe, effective way to treat anxiety, drugs like Effexor and Sertraline often take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks before showing results. This means that during the interim, fast-acting benzodiazepines must be prescribed as well. This means that not only must you deal with the side effects of both, but the potential withdrawal symptoms as well.
5. Anxiety medications treat the symptoms, not the underlying cause
Anxiety drugs are not a miracle cure for anxiety disorders. They do nothing more than treat the symptoms of the disorder. The underlying cause must still be addressed in order to get long-term relief from anxiety. A therapist can help you find the true reasons for your anxiety and can help you learn the skills needed to cope with your disorder on a long-term basis. Often behavioral therapy can show results in just a few session, without the need for medications.
There is no doubt that anxiety drugs such as Xanax, Ativan, Effexor, and Sertraline are beneficial in treating the symptoms of anxiety. In order to get lasting results, however, it is imperative to treat the disorder itself, not just the symptoms. As with so many mental disorders, a combination of therapy and medication has been found to be the most effective treatment.