An anxiety disorder is a chronic condition marked by extreme and unrelenting apprehension, fear and worry. People with anxiety disorders often experience physical symptoms, such as perspiration and heart palpitations. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 40 million American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder each year. These disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Social anxiety disorder.
Left untreated, anxiety disorders can become so severe that they interfere with daily life. Anxiety disorders are usually treated with medication, therapy or a combination of the two. Many people are prescribed antidepressants for anxiety disorders.
Commonly Prescribed Medication for Anxiety
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants for anxiety. These antidepressants, such as ProzacÂ¨ and ZoloftÂ¨, are effective at reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety.
SSRIs are usually the first choice of medication for anxiety among doctors and psychiatrists. These drugs produce fewer and less severe side effects than older antidepressants. Doctors may also prescribe serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), a newer class of antidepressants that increase the brain’s levels of serotonin and norepinephrine. Other antidepressants include tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), but these have severe side effects and are only prescribed if other treatments aren’t effective.
Antidepressants and Anxiety: How Do They Work?
The connection between antidepressants and anxiety is similar to the one between antidepressants and depression. SSRIs work well for treating anxiety because they regulate levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a brain transmitter that regulates mood and cognitive functioning. Decreased serotonin levels contribute to anxiety, depression and impulsivity.
For patients taking SNRIs, the increased levels of serotonin and norepinephrine work together to slow the transmission of nerve impulses and regulate mood swings.
Most anxiety patients start with a low dose of antidepressants and gradually increase their dosage to the correct level. Antidepressants usually take two to six weeks to start relieving symptoms of anxiety. If you are prescribed an antidepressant for anxiety, it’s important to keep taking the drug, even if it doesn’t appear to be working right away.
Antidepressant Side Effects
Although SSRIs and SNRIs are better tolerated than older classes of antidepressants, they still cause side effects. Most side effects are due to the increased levels of serotonin in the brain. In addition to regulating mood, serotonin also affects body functions like sleep, appetite, energy and libido. Common antidepressant side effects include:
- Sexual dysfunction
- Weight fluctuations.
Antidepressant side effects generally dissipate after a few weeks, once the body becomes accustomed to the antidepressant. However, be sure to discuss side effects with your doctor. Never stop taking your medication without first clearing it with your physician.
Healthy Place Staff. (2007). Medications for treating anxiety. Retrieved May 8, 2010, from the Healthy Place website: www.healthyplace.com/anxiety-panic/treatment/medications-for-treating-anxiety/menu-id-1062/.
Hoyle, B. (2010). Antidepressants for anxiety disorders. Retrieved May 8, 2010, from the Everyday Health website: www.everydayhealth.com/anxiety/anxiety-treatment-antidepressants.aspx.
National Institute of Mental Health Staff. (2010). Anxiety disorders. Retrieved May 10, 2010, from the National Institute of Mental Health website: www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/introduction.shtml.
Nichols, M. (2008). Questions and answers: Antidepressants for anxiety disorders. Retrieved May 8, 2010, from the Anxiety Panic Health website: anxietypanichealth.com/2008/09/26/questions-and-answers-antidepressants-for-anxiety-disorders/.