Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/19/2023
As you probably know from personal experience, anxiety can be a lot of things — a cause of insomnia, a roadblock to living your best life or a demon you have to fight off if you want to accomplish your most intimidating goals.
And it’s often the case that to overcome anxiety, you’ll need some help in the form of therapy, lifestyle changes or medication.
For some people, cutting back on the caffeine and downloading a meditation app may be enough to shift the balance of power, but for millions of people with more serious struggles, an anxiety medication is a safe and effective option for loosening the grip of fear on your life.
Do you want to try anxiety medications? Are you already in the process of getting a prescription for one? Great. We’ve got the information you’ll want to know before swallowing that first capsule or tablet, right here.
Below, we’ve listed medications currently used to treat anxiety, along with information on each medication’s effects, side effects and more.
We’ll give you the basic stats on everything on the market for the treatment of anxiety. Before we do that, however, there are some top-line facts you should know about these medications.
Anxiety disorders are very common, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. An estimated 31.1 percent of all American adults will experience some form of anxiety disorder during their lives, and many of those people could benefit from one of the many tested, proven medications for anxiety on the market right now.
These medications go by a few names — they’re sometimes called anxiolytics, or anti-anxiety drugs. Anxiety medications may even fall under other medication categories, like antidepressants.
Types of anxiety pills include:
Other medications, like buspirone
As a whole, anxiety meds are some of the most widely used medications in the United States — in 2019, nearly 16 percent of American adults were prescribed some type of psychiatric medication. These medications all work in slightly different ways to reduce the severity of anxiety symptoms and help you enjoy an easier, less stressful daily life.
Medications don’t “cure” anxiety like some instant health pill from the future, but they can reduce the symptoms of anxiety that prevent you from asking that person out, quitting your job for a new career path or simply leaving your house to run errands.
To understand how each class of medication helps to reduce your symptoms of anxiety, read on.
Believe it or not, one of the most common ways of medicating anxiety is by using a medication for another type of mental health condition — depression.
Certain antidepressants are prescribed to treat anxiety because they target the neurotransmitters responsible for the feelings and symptoms that characterize anxiety disorders.
Most antidepressants can often take several weeks to begin treating anxiety symptoms, which means they’re not the quickest option out there and aren’t usually used for relief of acute panic attacks or other short-term anxiety symptoms. But because of their overall safety track record, antidepressants are generally used for long-term treatment and management of chronic anxiety.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are one of the most popular types of antidepressants today, and they’re often used to treat anxiety disorders.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating important things like your mood, ability to concentrate, memory, ability to relax, appetite and ability to sleep.
People affected by anxiety and depression are believed (at least in part) to have altered levels of serotonin.
SSRIs, which first came onto the market in the 1980s, work by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin into your brain. This increases the levels of serotonin on hand and can lessen anxiety symptoms.
While they’re not considered addictive and have a lower potential for abuse than benzodiazepines, SSRIs have a variety of potential side effects that you should be aware of before using any medication of this type for an anxiety disorder.
In the United States, several SSRIs are prescribed to treat anxiety disorders. Common SSRIs used to treat anxiety include:
Sertraline. Sold under the brand name Zoloft®, sertraline is a widely used SSRI that’s primarily prescribed to treat depression. It’s also used to treat anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder and panic disorder. Learn more in our full guide to sertraline (Zoloft).
Escitalopram. Also sold under the brand name Lexapro®, escitalopram is prescribed to treat several anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and panic disorders. We’ve explained how escitalopram works, its common side effects and more in our guide to escitalopram (Lexapro).
Paroxetine. Also known as the brand name drug Paxil® (and others), paroxetine is prescribed to treat social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder and several other anxiety-related medical conditions. Our complete guide to paroxetine (Paxil) goes into greater detail on how this medication works.
Fluoxetine. Sold under the brand name Prozac®, fluoxetine is approved for treating certain forms of anxiety, namely OCD and panic disorder. Healthcare professionals might also prescribe fluoxetine off-label for generalized anxiety disorder. Learn more in our complete guide to fluoxetine (Prozac).
Fluvoxamine. Sold under the brand name Luvox®, fluvoxamine is prescribed for social anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Citalopram. As a generic and under the brand name Celexa®, citalopram is prescribed off-label to treat anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Citalopram is also used as an off-label treatment for certain eating disorders, including binge eating disorder.
In addition to SSRIs, several other types of antidepressants are commonly prescribed to treat depression. These include:
Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs)
These are just some of the many antidepressants on the market today — check out our full list to learn more.
And now, onto the details about these three big alternates.
As the name suggests, SNRIs work similarly to SSRIs, with one key change (yes, the one letter). In addition to increasing the amount of serotonin in your brain, they also increase the level of norepinephrine — a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating alertness, attention, memory and other mental and physical functions.
SNRIs used to treat anxiety include:
Duloxetine. Sold under the brand name Cymbalta®, duloxetine is an SNRI that’s used to treat generalized anxiety disorder. Our guide to duloxetine (Cymbalta) for anxiety provides more information on how this medication works, its side effects and more.
Venlafaxine. Sold under the brand name Effexor®, venlafaxine is used to treat social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are older antidepressants that were first discovered in the 1950s by clinical researchers. While they don’t have a starring role in the anxiety treatment series now streaming in your local pharmacy, some MAOIs may be effective as treatment for anxiety conditions such as social anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
Like other antidepressants, MAOIs work by boosting your brain’s level of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. While effective, they’re more likely to cause side effects and drug interactions than newer antidepressants used to treat anxiety.
Most MAOIs are not approved by the FDA to treat anxiety. However, they may be prescribed by your healthcare provider for off-label use if other treatments aren’t effective.
MAOI antidepressants that may be used to treat anxiety disorders include phenelzine, selegiline and tranylcypromine.
If you’re prescribed a MAOI, your healthcare provider may require you to carefully monitor your use of other medications and consumption of certain foods to avoid interactions.
Last but certainly not least, some tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are used to treat anxiety disorders. Tricyclics are also an older class of antidepressants first developed in the 1950s. They work by increasing the levels of certain mood-related neurotransmitters in your brain, and are used to treat anxiety disorders. TCAs for anxiety include:
Older antidepressant medications like tricyclic antidepressants typically have a higher risk of side effects than the more modern SSRI and SNRI medications. Because of this, they’re rarely used as first-line treatments for anxiety. So if you’re prescribed one of these, it’s likely because the SSRIs and SNRIs didn’t work for you.
Benzodiazepines are some of the most widely used medications in the United States, with tens of millions of users nationwide, with data from clinical studies indicating that benzodiazepine use is highest in older people. They’re a class of medications used to treat anxiety disorders, and some are also prescribed as sleeping pills for the short-term treatment and management of insomnia.
Benzodiazepines reduce anxiety, relax muscles and promote sedation. They’re almost exclusively prescribed for short-term use, because over the long term, benzodiazepine use can lead to dependence and abuse.
The good news is that, for the short term, they can be literal life savers. Benzodiazepines typically start working very quickly — their anti-anxiety effects may come on in less than an hour.
Benzodiazepines work by increasing the effects of a neurotransmitter called gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter — its job is to decrease activity in the neurons to which it binds. This can cause you to feel less anxious, stressed and fearful.
GABA is also thought to regulate emotion, memory, thinking and certain essential biological functions. By increasing the effects of GABA, benzodiazepines essentially slow down certain activity in the brain to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.
Common benzodiazepines for anxiety include:
Alprazolam. Sold as Xanax®, alprazolam is the most widely prescribed benzodiazepine in the United States. It’s used to treat a large range of anxiety and panic disorders.
Chlordiazepoxide. As brand name Librium® and a generic, chlordiazepoxide is typically used to treat anxiety and certain symptoms of alcohol/drug withdrawal.
Clonazepam. Better known as Klonopin, this medication is sometimes prescribed for anxiety disorders like panic disorder, as well as for seizures.
Clorazepate. Sold under the brand names Tranxene® and Gen-Xene®, clorazepate is prescribed to treat a range of anxiety disorders.
Diazepam. Also known as Valium®, diazepam is another widely prescribed benzodiazepine that’s used to treat anxiety disorders, panic attacks, seizures (typically in combination with other drugs) and drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Estazolam. Sold under the brand name Prosom®, estazolam is typically prescribed as a treatment for insomnia, including insomnia caused by anxiety.
Flurazepam. Available as Dalmane®, Flurazepam is a benzodiazepine derivative that’s primarily used as a short-term treatment for insomnia.
Lorazepam. Sold under the brand name Ativan, lorazepam is a benzodiazepine used for anxiety in some cases.
Oxazepam. As a generic and the brand names drugs Serax® and Zaxopam®, oxazepam is used to treat anxiety and certain symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Other benzodiazepines, such as temazepam and triazolam (available as Halcion®), are used as sleep aids and aren’t widely prescribed for anxiety.
Benzodiazepines can cause side effects, including some that may affect your alertness, physical health and daily life.
Common side effects of benzodiazepines include:
In some cases, benzodiazepines may cause breathing issues, including respiratory depression (failure of the lungs to exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen properly).
When taken in the evening, particularly when used to treat anxiety-related insomnia, it’s common for some benzodiazepines to cause a next-morning “hangover” effect.
Most benzodiazepines are only recommended for short-term use. When used for the long term, treatment with benzodiazepines can lead to dependence, addiction and abuse.
Due to the potential of dependence and abuse, it’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions closely if you’re prescribed benzodiazepine medications.
These anti-anxiety medications can also cause withdrawal symptoms if they’re stopped suddenly, especially if you’ve been taking one at a high dose for a while.
If you’re prescribed any type of benzodiazepine, do not abruptly stop taking it without first talking to your healthcare provider. They’ll tell you how to safely reduce your dosage and stop using your medication without developing withdrawal syndrome.
Beta blockers are a class of medications that are used to reduce blood pressure. They’re often prescribed to manage heart conditions, such as angina, irregular heartbeat and heart failure, or to increase heart function in people who’ve recently had a heart attack.
Certain beta blocker medications are also effective at treating the physical symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as tremors.
Although they aren’t approved by the FDA as medications for anxiety, your healthcare provider may prescribe a beta blocker off-label if you’re affected by anxiety in stressful situations.
Beta blockers work by blocking the effects of epinephrine, or adrenaline, a hormone responsible for controlling your fight-or-flight response. By blocking the effects of epinephrine, beta blockers slow your heartbeat and improve blood flow throughout your body.
Beta blockers may be particularly helpful for treating the symptoms of performance anxiety — a form of anxiety that’s related to speaking, acting or performing in front of others in certain social situations.
Like benzodiazepines, beta blockers start working quite quickly to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety. For example, propranolol, a widely used beta blocker, usually starts working less than one hour after it’s taken.
One thing to note about beta blockers is that they only treat the physical effects of anxiety, not the underlying psychological cause.
As such, they’re usually just prescribed to treat moderate or severe anxiety that only occurs in certain situations, such as anxiety related to public speaking or other stressful situations.
Beta blockers used to treat anxiety include:
Propranolol. Propranolol is a common, widely prescribed beta blocker that’s often used off-label to treat performance anxiety. If you often experience the physical symptoms of anxiety while speaking, interviewing or auditioning, this medication may help.
Propranolol has been used in the United States for more than 40 years. We’ve explained how it works, its adverse effects and more in our detailed guide to propranolol.
Atenolol. Atenolol is a slightly longer-acting beta blocker than propranolol. Although it’s not officially approved to treat anxiety, it’s occasionally used off-label to treat the physical symptoms associated with performance anxiety.
Like other prescription medications, beta blockers may cause side effects. Common side effects of beta blockers include:
Bradycardia (slow heart rate)
Hypotension (low blood pressure)
Beta blockers can also interfere with certain other medications, including medication for heart disease and other conditions.
To avoid these side effects and interactions, you’ll need to discuss your general health and use of other medications with your healthcare provider before using any type of beta blocker to treat anxiety.
Most cases of anxiety that require medications are treated using benzodiazepines, antidepressants or beta blockers, often in combination with behavioral therapy. However, several other types of medication are also used to treat anxiety.
Other medications for anxiety include:
Antihistamines. Some antihistamines have a calming effect, making them an effective option for mild to moderate anxiety. They can also help to promote sleep — a common difficulty for people with anxiety. Hydroxyzine, sold under the brand name Vistaril®, is occasionally used as a short-term treatment for anxiety.
Anticonvulsants. Anticonvulsant medications, such as gabapentin and pregabalin, may help to treat symptoms of certain anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.
Buspirone. Buspirone is an azapirone medication that’s used to treat certain anxiety disorders, though it does have some limitations. Like SSRIs, buspirone may take several weeks of treatment to produce a noticeable improvement in the symptoms of anxiety.
One of the worst things about anxiety is the recurring feeling of being overwhelmed, and we’re embarrassed to say that the list of options we just shared may have been very overwhelming to read.
If you can’t tell from the walls of text you just finished scrolling through, there are a wide range of common anxiety medications, from antidepressants to benzodiazepines to beta blockers and more. Knowing what will help you is really a healthcare professional’s job, so leaning on your provider for guidance is crucial if you’re trying to get anxiety under control.
Before or after having a conversation with them, keep the following things in mind to stay focused on what really matters:
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” drug that’s best for everyone.
Some medications are used for specific types of anxiety disorders — your unique diagnosis will determine what your options are.
It’s important to closely follow the instructions provided by your healthcare provider regardless of what you take, and be aware of potential side effects.
Talk to your healthcare provider before making any changes to your routine or dosage, or discontinuing any medication. Let them know if adverse effects, like weight gain, are causing more problems than they seem to be solving.
Psychotherapy, habits and lifestyle changes can often help to treat anxiety whether you’re taking medication or not.
Many of these habits, such as meditation, self-care and techniques for promoting relaxation and stress management, can be practiced at home. Find out more in our guides to calming down anxiety on your own and natural remedies for dealing with anxiety symptoms.
If you’re looking for someone to get that guidance from, Hers’ mental health services are a great place to start.
We offer a range of mental health treatments online and medication for anxiety or depression. We offer online therapy and online psychiatry for people looking for convenient options that don’t require a commute to an office.
There are so many options that choosing can seem daunting. Make the only right choice — ask for help today.