Medical treatments for anxiety

Research shows that psychological therapies are the most effective treatment option for people with anxiety. However, if symptoms are severe, some medical treatments may be helpful.

Antidepressant medication

Some types of antidepressant medication can help people to manage anxiety, even if they are not experiencing symptoms of depression.

Research indicates that when people have an anxiety condition, specific changes occur in their brain's chemicals – serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. Antidepressant medication is designed to correct the imbalance of chemical messages between nerve cells (neurones) in the brain. Learn about the different classes of antidepressant medication.

What are the side effects?

Antidepressants can make you feel better, but they won't change your personality or make you feel happy all the time. Like taking any other medication, some people will experience some side effects, and individuals should discuss the risks and benefits with their doctor. People should also ask for information about the medications so that they can make an informed decision.

Depending on which medication is taken, common side effects can include nausea, headaches, anxiety, sweating, dizziness, agitation, weight gain, dry mouth and sexual difficulties (e.g. difficulty becoming/staying aroused).

Some of these symptoms can be short-lived, but people who experience any of these symptoms should tell their doctor, as there are ways of minimising them. The likelihood of a particular side effect happening varies between individuals and medications.

It is not uncommon for people with mental health conditions to have suicidal thoughts. Treating the condition effectively will reduce the likelihood of a person hurting him or herself. In the period of time between the person starting antidepressant medication and responding to treatment – which can be more than two weeks – the person should still be monitored closely by the doctor and his or her progress reviewed, as the risk of suicidal behaviour may even be slightly increased, especially in young people.

How long are antidepressants usually needed?

Like any medication, the length of time a person needs to take antidepressants depends on the severity of their condition and how they respond to treatment. Some people only need to take them for a short time, while others may need them on an ongoing basis to manage their condition. It’s just like someone who uses insulin to manage their diabetes, or ventolin for asthma.

Antidepressants are safe, effective and not addictive. People sometimes want to stop taking antidepressants quickly because they are concerned they're addictive. This may be because they confuse antidepressants with other types of medications (e.g. benzodiazepines, sedatives), but stopping medication should only be done gradually, on a doctor's recommendation and under supervision.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines (sometimes called minor tranquillisers and sleeping pills) are a class of drug commonly prescribed in the short term to help people cope with anxiety conditions. Benzodiazepines promote relaxation and reduce tension, but are not recommended for long-term use as they can reduce alertness, affect coordination, and can be addictive. They may be useful for a short period of time (two or three weeks) or if used intermittently as part of a broad treatment plan, but not as the first or only treatment.


More information on medical treatments

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