Medically reviewed by Angela Sheddan, DNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/23/2021
When anxiety strikes, dealing with it can feel virtually impossible. Your mind can begin to race from thought to thought, your heartbeat may become more intense and you might start to feel like you’re trapped in a mental loop without an exit.
Anxiety is a common issue that can affect people of all ages and backgrounds, and it’s treated with several different approaches, including therapy and the use of medication.
Several different types of medication are available to treat anxiety, including benzodiazepines, antidepressants and others.
These medications are different from one another but effective, with some better suited to some people’s needs than others.
Below, we explain how anti-anxiety medications work, as well as the biggest differences between the most common types of anxiety medication.
We also share how you can work with your mental health care provider to choose the most effective anti-anxiety medication for your needs.
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, fear or uneasiness. It affects everyone from time to time, especially before and during stressful or demanding situations.
While it’s normal to experience occasional anxiety, some people have chronic or severe anxiety that affects their relationships, career and quality of life. When anxiety is severe or recurrent, it’s often a sign of an anxiety disorder.
Common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and specific phobias, such as a fear of heights, flying or spiders.
Anxiety disorders can vary in severity. For some, anxiety is a minor problem that comes and goes. For others, it can cause intense, persistent symptoms that make it difficult to maintain a normal life.
Anxiety is commonly treated with medication. If you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your mental health care provider may prescribe medication for use on its own or in combination with a form of psychotherapy.
Medications used to treat anxiety include benzodiazepines, antidepressants, beta-blockers and buspirone.
Although all anxiety medications are effective for most people, they can vary in their effects and side effects.
Some anxiety medications work very quickly, while others may take several weeks to produce noticeable improvements in your symptoms.
Below are the most widely used anxiety medications, along with information about how each medication works to treat and manage anxiety.
Benzodiazepines are popular medications used to treat anxiety, insomnia, agitation and other conditions.
They work by enhancing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — a neurotransmitter that slows activity in your brain and central nervous system.
Many benzodiazepines are widely prescribed. In fact, research suggests that 12.5 percent of all adults in the United States have used benzodiazepines at some point.
One of the main advantages of benzodiazepines is that they start working quickly to reduce the severity of anxiety.
Many common benzodiazepines produce a noticeable calming effect in less than one hour.
Benzodiazepines that are often prescribed to treat anxiety include diazepam (Valium®), alprazolam (Xanax®), lorazepam (Ativan®) and clonazepam (Klonopin®).
Your mental health care provider may prescribe a benzodiazepine if you need short-term relief from your anxiety symptoms, or if you’re affected by acute anxiety.
Benzodiazepines are often used to treat panic disorder, which can involve sudden, intense symptoms.
Although benzodiazepines are effective at controlling anxiety, they have several disadvantages that mean they may not be suitable for everyone.
First, many people develop a tolerance to benzodiazepines. If you’re prescribed a medication in this class, you may find that its effects become weaker over time.
A dose that worked for you a few weeks ago, for example, may no longer do much to calm your anxiety symptoms.
Second, it’s possible to become dependent on benzodiazepines. Some people may experience physical withdrawal symptoms after stopping benzodiazepine use, even after using this type of medication for just a few weeks.
Because of these risks, healthcare providers generally only prescribe benzodiazepines to treat anxiety in the short term.
If you’re prescribed a benzodiazepine, your healthcare provider may instruct you to only use it for a few weeks, or as an as-needed medication for when you suddenly experience intense or severe anxiety symptoms.
Make sure to inform your healthcare provider if you ever experience any side effects while using a benzodiazepine to treat anxiety.
Antidepressants are best known as treatments for depression, but many are also used to treat anxiety disorders.
Most antidepressants work by changing the levels of certain chemicals in your brain and body, called neurotransmitters.
Some of these chemicals, such as serotonin, play a major role in the regulation of your moods, feelings of happiness and anxiety levels.
Unlike benzodiazepines, which act quickly, most antidepressants take several weeks to produce any improvement in your feelings or anxiety symptoms.
It’s important to be patient and use this type of medication as prescribed, even if you don’t notice any immediate improvements.
Several different types of antidepressants are prescribed to treat anxiety. Here are the most common antidepressants used to treat anxiety:
SSRIs are modern antidepressants that work by increasing the activity of serotonin in your brain and body.
They’re popular medications often prescribed to treat depression and many anxiety disorders.
SSRIs are less likely to cause side effects than older antidepressants. However, it’s still possible to experience side effects while taking an SSRI.
Common side effects of SSRIs include nausea, drowsiness, difficulty sleeping and some forms of sexual dysfunction.
If you’re prescribed an SSRI for anxiety and experience side effects, it’s important to inform your healthcare provider.
SNRIs are similar to SSRIs, but they also target the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe this type of medication to reduce the severity of your anxiety symptoms.
Several SNRIs are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety, including venlafaxine (Effexor®) and duloxetine (Cymbalta®).
The side effects of SNRIs are similar to those of SSRIs. Some SNRIs may also cause increases in blood pressure, headaches, sweating and other side effects.
TCAs are older antidepressants. They’re equally as effective at treating most forms of anxiety as SSRIs, with the exceptions of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and social phobia.
Common TCAs prescribed off-label to treat anxiety disorders include imipramine (Tofranil®) and clomipramine (Anafranil®).
Despite their effectiveness, TCAs aren’t as widely used for anxiety as SSRIs due to their greater risk of causing side effects.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe this type of antidepressant if your first anxiety treatment isn’t effective.
MAOIs are another class of older antidepressants. They’re often effective at treating anxiety, but are more likely to cause side effects and interactions than newer medications.
Commonly reported side effects of MAOIs include nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, lightheadedness, dry mouth, drowsiness and constipation.
MAOIs can interact with other medications and some foods. In fact, your healthcare provider will likely inform you about medications and foods to avoid while taking an MAOI before you start treatment with this type of medication.
Beta-blockers are medications typically used to treat cardiovascular conditions, such as hypertension (high blood pressure), tachycardia (fast heart rate), heart failure, heart attack and coronary artery disease. They work by inhibiting receptors and slowing your heart rate.
Although beta-blockers aren’t approved by the FDA as treatments for anxiety, many are used as off-label treatments for physical anxiety symptoms.
Beta-blockers are commonly used by stage musicians. By reducing tremors, fast heart rate and other physical symptoms of anxiety, they may make it easier to give a speech or perform in front of other people.
Beta-blockers are used as as-needed treatments for anxiety. Unlike antidepressants, they aren’t prescribed as long-term, ongoing anxiety treatments.
Buspirone is an anxiolytic medication. It’s often used to treat generalized anxiety disorder due to its reduced risk of causing side effects compared to other anxiety medications.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe buspirone if you get side effects from other medications, or if you have chronic anxiety that needs ongoing treatment.
One major advantage of buspirone, especially for treating long-term anxiety, is that it has no risk of causing physical dependence.
It also doesn’t cause withdrawal symptoms, which can occur with both benzodiazepines and antidepressants.
A disadvantage of buspirone is that it isn’t effective immediately. In most cases, buspirone takes two to four weeks to start working.
Another disadvantage is that buspirone isn’t effective for all people with anxiety disorders.
Since anxiety can vary in type and severity, there’s no one-size-fits-all “best” anxiety medication for everyone.
When your healthcare provider prescribes medication to control your anxiety, they’ll look at your symptoms, their severity and a range of other factors to select a medication that’s best suited to your needs.
Before you use your medication, make sure to discuss the following topics with your healthcare provider:
How often you should use your medication, as well as what time of day you should take each dose.
Any side effects or other safety risks associated with each type of medication, as well as what you should do if they affect you.
Drug interactions that you should be aware of, as well as how any medications you use could affect the effectiveness or safety of your treatment.
Lifestyle changes and habits you can incorporate to make your medication more effective or reduce anxiety naturally.
What you should do to keep yourself safe and healthy if you suddenly need to stop using your medication.
If your medication isn’t effective, your healthcare provider may adjust your dosage or prescribe a different type of medication.
It’s common and normal to try several medications before finding an anxiety treatment that improves your symptoms.
Regardless of the type of medication you’re prescribed, it’s important that you closely follow the instructions provided by your healthcare provider.
Make sure to inform your healthcare provider if you experience any side effects or other issues while using your medication.
Beyond medication, there are several other ways to treat anxiety. Your healthcare provider may suggest taking part in psychotherapy, making changes to your lifestyle or both.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, involves talking with a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional to improve your anxiety symptoms.
Several different forms of psychotherapy are used to treat anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT involves developing new ways of thinking and reacting to the specific things that trigger your anxiety, such as situations, people or objects.
Another form of psychotherapy used to treat anxiety is exposure therapy, which involves directly confronting the specific fears that cause you to feel anxious.
This guide to therapy for treating anxiety goes into more detail about how therapy works, the key benefits of therapy and the specific types of therapy commonly used to treat anxiety disorders.
Sometimes, making small changes to your habits and lifestyle can help reduce the severity of your anxiety. Try to:
Get more exercise. Exercise has been shown to help lower anxiety, and helps by diverting your attention from things that cause you to feel anxious. It’s also important for stimulating the release of serotonin, GABA and other neurochemicals that provide a clear, calm mind.While there’s no need to work out like an athlete, try to achieve the CDC’s recommended 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week, as well as two workouts that train your muscles.
Identify your anxiety triggers. Try to identify the specific things that make you develop anxiety, such as crowded rooms or public performances. This way, you can either avoid your known triggers, or develop strategies for dealing with situations that make you feel anxious.
Use meditation to calm your mind. Research suggests that meditation may play a role in treating anxiety and depression. If you feel anxious, try using mindfulness meditation to calm your mind and set your worries aside.
This guide to calming your anxiety shares other lifestyle changes and habits you can use to reduce your feelings of anxiety.
Anxiety is a common but serious mental health condition. When you feel anxious, it’s important to get the help you need to clear your mind and stop your anxiety from having a negative effect on your life.
If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, you can connect with a psychiatry provider online using this online psychiatry service.
Following an online psychiatric evaluation, you’ll receive a personalized treatment plan that may include research-backed medication for anxiety.
Need extra help dealing with anxiety? Check out these free mental health resources packed with actionable tips and strategies to help you successfully cope with anxiety, depression, stress and other common mental health issues.