Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/24/2022
We know stress isn’t healthy. From making us tired and causing acne to chronic anxiousness, it’s important to manage our stress levels.
But managing stress is easier said than done. We encounter multiple stressful situations on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes, it can be overwhelming.
Wanting to find a remedy to anxiety and stress is understandable. We’ve heard of natural stress relievers like practicing mindfulness and yoga. But can medication help with stress?
Before we get into how stress medication works and its effectiveness, let’s discuss how stress affects your mental well-being.
Stress is a normal reaction of emotional or physical tension to everyday pressure, from work problems to time restraints and everything in between.
When under stress, our bodies release hormones that activate our fight-or-flight response to help us survive. This survival mode is controlled in part by the regulation of the stress hormone cortisol.
Physical symptoms of stress can include increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, heavy sweating, muscle tension and high blood pressure. In some cases, severe stress can be misdiagnosed as a heart attack.
But when chronic stress experiences interfere with your daily life, you could be dealing with a more serious issue.
It may be the result of anxiety, which is associated with anxious feelings, obsessive thoughts, trouble sleeping and other symptoms of anxiety.
Stress is the response to an outside cause (such as arguing with a friend or work pressure), whereas anxiety is how our body responds to stress. There may be a persistent feeling of dread or worry that doesn’t go away, even if there’s no immediate danger.
Other anxiety symptoms that overlap with symptoms of stress include:
Loss of sleep
If your stress symptoms are similar to anxiety symptoms, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder like generalized anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a common anxiety disorder affecting approximately 6.8 million people in the U.S. A person with generalized anxiety disorder may experience excessive worry or stress about health, work, social interactions or daily responsibilities.
Another anxiety disorder that may cause excessive stress is social anxiety disorder, a condition marked by intense fear or worry about being judged, rejected or viewed negatively in a social setting or while performing in front of others.
Excessive stress may also result in panic attacks, unexpected and frequent attacks of anxiety. Additionally, those with panic disorders may experience a pounding heartbeat, sweating, feelings of being out of control and other anxiety symptoms that are similar to those of stress.
If you’re curious about other anxiety disorders, including their symptoms and causes, our overview of anxiety disorders covers everything you may want to know.
Below, we’ll cover what medication for stress is available and whether stress medication is effective, along with a rundown of possible side effects.
While there’s no anti-stress medication that directly cures stress, your healthcare provider may recommend medication for stress if you’re struggling to cope with anxiety symptoms.
Stress medication may provide relief and help you manage anxiety symptoms. Some of the most common types of anti-anxiety medication include antidepressants, benzodiazepines and beta blockers.
Certain antidepressant drugs may be used to manage anxiety, as they target the same chemicals in the brain responsible for feelings of stress and anxiety. Antidepressants can take several weeks to start working, so they’re typically used as a long-term treatment.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are among the most common antidepressants prescribed for anxiety. SSRIs include sertraline (Zoloft®), escitalopram (Lexapro®), paroxetine (Paxil®), fluoxetine (Prozac®) and citalopram (Celexa®).
SSRIs are tolerated well by most people but can still produce side effects. Some common side effects of SSRIsinclude dry mouth, nausea, drowsiness, dizziness and sexual dysfunction.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe other types of antidepressants as medication for stress relief, including serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).
Benzodiazepines work by relaxing your muscles, promoting sedation and reducing feelings of anxiousness.
Benzodiazepines are thought to increase the effects of a neurotransmitter called gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger used by the brain and body to send messages between neurons. GABA decreases activity in the neurons it binds to, helping you feel less anxious, stressed and fearful.
Some common benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax®), clonazepam (Klonopin®), diazepam (Valium®) and lorazepam (Ativan®).
Common side effects of benzodiazepines include memory problems, fatigue and drowsiness. Benzodiazepines are also generally a short-term treatment, as long-term use significantly increases the potential for tolerance, dependence, abuse and withdrawal symptoms.
Beta blockers are medications commonly prescribed to manage heart conditions, such as angina, atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) and heart failure, or to improve heart function in people who’ve recently had a heart attack. These drugs work by reducing blood pressure.
For anxiety and stress, beta blockers work by blocking epinephrine (aka adrenaline), a hormone responsible for your fight-or-flight response. The effect slows your heartbeat and improves blood flow throughout the body.
Although they aren’t approved by the FDA as anxiety medications, your healthcare provider may prescribe a beta blocker off-label if you often feel anxious in stressful situations. Beta blockers are especially helpful in providing short-term relief of performance anxiety in situations like public speaking, job interviews or giving a presentation.
A 2016 review of research about using short-term propranolol (a widely used beta blocker) for panic disorder found that its effects were similar to benzodiazepines. However, the research also found that beta blockers weren’t effective in relieving social anxiety disorder or social phobias.
While medication for stress is one way to deal with the symptoms, natural remedies are also recommended to manage stress levels and provide relief.
Regular exercise. Physical activity is one of the most effective natural treatments to reduce stress, improve your mood and provide sustained health benefits. Research shows that regular aerobic exercise, such as running, biking or simply walking outside, can decrease feelings of anxiety and improve symptoms in people with anxiety disorders.
Meditation.Meditation is another relaxation and stress reduction technique with a long history of boosting calmness, improving emotional balance and enhancing overall well-being. A 2013 study found that mindfulness meditation may benefit people with generalized anxiety disorder.
Limited caffeine consumption. Although results are mixed, some studies have found that large amounts of caffeine contribute to feelings of anxiety. While there’s no need to completely give up coffee or tea, scaling back could help with excessive feelings of anxiety as a result of stress.
While there isn’t an anti-stress treatment that makes all symptoms disappear, there are effective medications and natural remedies to help manage symptoms of stress.
Since everyone experiences anxiety differently, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” medication. A healthcare provider may prescribe one or several drugs based on your symptoms, general health, lifestyle and other factors.
Our full guide on medications for anxiety offers information about anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. You can also consult with a psychiatrist through our online mental health services to discuss your symptoms and find out if anxiety medication is right for you.