So your doctor has prescribed anti-medication for you. If you’re like most people, you have a lot of questions…and perhaps a bit of trepidation.
Should you take his advice? What about side effects – and addiction? And of course, particularly for the uninsured, there’s the cost.
Yet doctors the world over (with a particular emphasis in the U.S.) prescribe anti-anxiety medications every day. And many people who have received drug therapy report amazing – and very encouraging – results.
Is anxiety drug therapy for you? Let’s take a closer look at this drug category, whether it helps or hinders…and whether you should go the medication route.
Anti-Anxiety Meds: a Quick Primer
Anti-anxiety drugs typically fall under one of three categories.
Benzodiazepines are short-term, fast acting drugs that work to quell anxiety while it’s happening. The most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines for anxiety are Klonopin, Xanax, Valium and Adivan. Benzodiazepines have a relatively short list of common side effects, though these can have a major impact in the short-term (drowsiness, dizziness and lack of coordination are most commonly reported). The biggest drawback to this drug class is that these medications, over the long-term, can be highly addictive.
Beta blockers were originally developed to fight heart conditions (and are still prescribed for this purpose). They act primarily on the physical side effects of anxiety and panic, such as a rapid heartbeat, shaking and trembling, and even flushing of the skin, particularly the face. They are often prescribed for anxiety experienced in social situations. Beta blockers have fewer side effects than some anxiety medications and are not habit forming.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been used for decades as anti-depressants. For some individuals, SSRIs also target anxiety. This is believed to be due to the activity of keeping serotonin – the “feel good” brain chemical – from being reabsorbed into the body too quickly. Typically, more serotonin equals more calmness. SSRIs frequently used for anxiety include Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft.
There are other medications that may be used (though more rarely) for anxiety disorders; consult your physician for a full list.
Why Anti-Anxiety Drugs Are Prescribed
Generally, beta blockers and benzodiazepines are prescribed for either short-term or “on-the-spot” anxiety. Grief, traumatic experiences and conditions that engender panic attacks, such as social anxiety disorder or performance anxiety, would fall under this category.
SSRIs are usually recommended for long-term anxiety, anxiety without any known root cause (such as a traumatic event) and for individuals concurrently experiencing depression.
When Medications Become a Problem
No one can judge another’s experience, and there is no doubt that anxiety, particularly over the long term, can severely impact one’s life. During these times, medication may be warranted. We have never advocated, nor will we ever advocate, simply “powering through” and suffering the terrible effects of anxiety.
However, there are some downsides to taking anti-anxiety medications. These may include:
- Physical dependence. Some anti-anxiety medications are habit-forming and may include a withdrawal period upon stopping.
- Emotional dependence. We may become afraid, over time, that without the drugs, our anxiety will come back in full force. So we keep on taking them.
- Side effects. Some anti-anxiety drugs work directly on the brain. Science still isn’t sure of the long-term implications of this. Others include side effects that may be dangerous, such as an inability to focus (which can be a problem while driving, while caring for others, or while operating machinery). Yet others have gastrointestinal side effects that can be debilitating.
- Not addressing underlying issues. Unless one is receiving counseling, relying on drugs to reduce anxiety could make it easy to simply never address the underlying causes.
Non-Drug Therapies for Anxiety
If you’re unwilling to go the drug route, there are alternatives. Please note that we are NOT suggesting you ignore your doctor’s advice. However, with his approval, any of the suggestions below may help with your anxiety issues.
- Anti-anxiety herbs. Remember: always research herbal remedies and ask your doctor about contraindications with any conditions you have or medications you are taking. That said, a few herbs are touted as amazing anxiety reducers. A few include chamomile (particularly as a tea), hops (do not use if you have an alcohol issue), valerian root, lemon balm (particularly as an essential oil to be rubbed on the body or as a fragrance), catnip, kava kava, passionflower and skullcap. NOTE: Do not take any of these remedies while pregnant or nursing except as directed by a physician. Do not take these herbs concurrently with sleep medication or with sedatives or alcohol.
- Exercise. Regular aerobic exercise for approximately 30 minutes per session (at a minimum of five days a week) has been shown to have a soothing effect on the nervous system.
- Behavioral therapy/cognitive therapy/talk therapy. These tools can all help anxiety sufferers to get through anxiety attacks and to ultimately reduce the amount and/or severity of anxiety attacks. Make sure you find a certified therapist with whom you feel comfortable.
- Breathing exercises. Calming your breathing to measured, slow, easy breaths can minimize the physical effects of an anxiety attack while they’re happing. As these often frightening feelings lessen, overall anxiety is reduced. (See Panic Away, a long-term self-help program that shows many techniques that allows sufferers to calm themselves during a panic attack.)
- Changing one’s life circumstances. If your job, friends or living situation stress you, try to change them, even if in small ways. Learn to speak up for yourself. Learn to say “no” to people who ask too much of you. If you are in a toxic relationship, leave it if at all possible.
- Yoga. Yoga and meditation have amazing effects on the central nervous system and, when practiced regularly, can help minimize anxiety.
If You Do Decide Upon Medication
If you decide medication is the best course of action for you, keep the following in mind.
- Speak to your doctor about potential side effects, including dependency. Make sure you have a hard copy of ALL potential side effects of the drug.
- Ask your doctor how long s/he anticipates that you will need to continue on the medication.
- Report ANY side effects to your doctor – even if they don’t appear on the drug description sheet.
- Consider talk or behavioral therapy in conjunction with your medication so that once you stop the drug, you will have tools with which to address your anxiety.
- Tell your doctor about all medications, vitamins and supplements you are currently taking.
- Find out if there is a generic form of your medication so that you can cut costs.
- Take your medication EXACTLY as directed.
Remember, you have options. It’s your body and it’s your life. Treat both with the care you deserve.