Anxiety Medication: List, Types, and Uses

By Chris Bodle, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
September 10, 2020

At some point or another, you have probably experienced anxiety symptoms like racing thoughts, sweaty palms, or shortness of breath. Anxiety is the body’s way of responding to stress, so it is normal to feel physically or mentally anxious from time to time. However, if fear and worry are persistent and interfere with your everyday life, you could be experiencing an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., impacting 40 million adults—that’s more than 18% of the population. There are a number of treatment options for anxiety, including anxiety medication.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal response to stress involving fear and worry about the future. While it is common for people to feel anxious from time to time, some people experience more debilitating and persistent worry. If ongoing, anxiety can interfere with someone’s everyday life, and a doctor might diagnose them with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are more common in women than men, and they usually develop due to a number of factors, including someone’s life events, genetic makeup, brain chemistry, and personality.

Common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Difficulty controlling worry
  • Feeling nervous or restless
  • Trouble concentrating due to worrying
  • Experiencing a sense of impending danger or panic
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Rapid breathing and increased heart rate
  • Feelings of weakness
  • Feeling tired
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems like nausea, diarrhea, upset stomach
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Types of anxiety

There are several kinds of anxiety that may respond to anti-anxiety medication, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): GAD usually involves persistent worry and anxiety that are often out of proportion to activities, events, or circumstances.
  • Social anxiety disorder: Social anxiety disorder causes people to feel fearful and anxious about being around other people in social situations.
  • Agoraphobia: People with agoraphobia avoid going places with many people where they may have panic attacks, feel trapped, or be embarrassed.
  • Panic disorder: Panic disorder causes ongoing episodes of intense anxiety called panic attacks, which can come with overwhelming physical symptoms like a racing heart, dizziness, shortness of breath, and an overall feeling of impending doom.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD has two components; intrusive and unwanted thoughts or images that cause anxiety (obsessions) and behaviors someone feels compelled to do to ease anxiety (compulsions). Usually, people with OCD experience a variety of obsessions and compulsions.
  • Specific phobias: Phobias, or strong fear reactions, cause people to irrationally avoid specific places or situations.

Types of Anxiety Medications

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

A common medication for anxiety and depression, SSRIs are considered by many doctors to be the first line of treatment for anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). SSRIs work by blocking the removal of serotonin from the brain and thereby increasing serotonin levels. The increase in serotonin can help the brain cells send and receive messages more efficiently. According to studies, SSRIs typically take between 2-6 weeks to work.

Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRIs)

Similar to SSRIs, SNRIs help balance your brain chemistry by blocking the removal of neurotransmitters. Rather than just increasing serotonin levels, SNRIs also increase norepinephrine, which impacts how brain cells communicate.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

MAOIs inhibit a brain enzyme called monoamine oxidase, which breaks down serotonin and other neurotransmitters. The end result is similar to SSRI and SNRI medications; an increase in serotonin, norepinephrine, and other neurotransmitters. However, MAOIs interact with many other medications and foods, so doctors usually prescribe them only when someone isn’t responding to other anxiety medications.

Tricyclic anxiety medications (TCAs)

Tricyclic antidepressant medications are also used to treat anxiety disorders. These medications are known to cause more severe side effects in some people, but they can help manage anxiety. They function to increase neurotransmitter levels in the brain in a similar manner to the other classes of medications listed above. They are called “tricyclic” antidepressants because there are three rings in their chemical structure.

Beta blockers

Beta blockers are drugs that are commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions. Some doctors use these drugs for anxiety—most often, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder—since they can help calm physical symptoms of anxiety like a racing heart rate and shortness of breath.

Anxiolytic

Anxiolytic drugs are medications that can be taken to decrease anxiety by targeting specific receptors in the pain. They work quickly but can be habit forming. Doctors generally only prescribe them for short-term use in panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.

List of Common Anxiety Medications

Depending on factors like your symptoms, current medications, and health history, along with potential side effects, your doctor may prescribe any of the below anxiety medications:

SSRIs

SNRIs

MAOIs

  • Parnate (tranylcypromine)
  • Nardil (phenelzine)
  • Marplan (isocarboxazid)

Tricyclic anxiety medications

  • Tofranil (imipramine)
  • Pamelor (nortriptyline)
  • Elavil (amitriptyline)
  • Norpramin (desipramine)

Beta blockers

  • Tenormin (atenolol)
  • Inderal (propranolol)

Anxiolytic

  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Valium (diazepam)

How Anxiety Medications are Prescribed

There are no over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for anxiety. Anxiety medications need to be prescribed by a doctor. To make sure you get the medication that will work best for your symptoms, your doctor will likely ask you questions about your anxiety and make a diagnosis.

Anxiety Medication Side Effects

Most people notice relief within several weeks of starting anxiety medication. But bear in mind that as with most medicines, anxiety medication can come with a variety of side effects. The side effects you experience depend on the type of medication you take:

SSRI and SNRI side effects

MAOIs

  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Low blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Sexual problems
  • Weight gain
  • Food interactions

Tricyclic anxiety medications

  • Blurred vision
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Sexual problems
  • Constipation
  • Excessive sweating
  • Low blood pressure when standing up
  • Tremors

Beta blockers

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight gain
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Low blood pressure

Anxiolytics

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Sedation
  • Confusion
  • Dependence or withdrawal

Your doctor will work with you to determine whether these side effects outweigh the potential benefit of an anxiety medication. If you are having trouble with any side effects from a medicine you’re on, talk to your health care provider or chat with a doctor on K about different medication options.

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Alternative Treatment Options

Your doctor may think anxiety medication is the best way to improve your mental health—but medicine isn’t the only way to manage anxiety. There are a number of lifestyle changes that can be helpful to treat anxiety:

  • Mindfulness and meditation
  • Psychotherapy
  • Exercise
  • Getting ample sleep
  • A nutritious diet
  • Avoiding substances like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol

When to See a Doctor

Everyone experiences worry from time to time however, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety or you find that worry interferes with your everyday life, it may be time to talk to a doctor.

It’s also important to talk with your doctor if you’re experiencing negative side effects on your current medication, want to change prescriptions, or you’d like to try a new anxiety treatment.

How K Health Can Help

Want mental health support?

K Health offers anxiety medication for the right candidates.

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K Therapy offers free smart chats, which are dynamic, pre-written conversations designed by experts that cover a number of common mental health topics such as depression, anxiety, stress, relationships, and more. Access them for free by downloading the K Therapy app.

Online therapists are also available in select states for individualized care.

Connect with a licensed mental health therapist for unlimited asynchronous text-based therapy. Therapists respond Monday through Friday between 9am-5pm, within 24-hours.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chris Bodle, MD

Dr. Bodle is a board certified emergency medicine physician. He received his medical degree from Indiana University School of Medicine, and completed his residency in emergency medicine at Emory University. In addition to K Health, he currently works as an Emergency Medicine physician in an Urban, Level 1 Trauma Center in the south east.

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