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Antianxiety Drugs

Drugs that are used to reduce and control the symptoms of stress and anxiety

Common drugs

    Benzodiazepines

  • Chlordiazepoxide

  • Diazepam

  • Lorazepam

  • Oxazepam

    Beta-blocker drugs

  • Oxprenolol

  • Propranolol

Antianxiety drugs, sometimes known as anxiolytics or minor tranquillizers, are used to treat anxiety disorders, in which feelings of foreboding and fear may be accompanied by physical symptoms such as palpitations and tremor. The underlying cause of the anxiety may also need to be treated at the same time, possibly using one or more psychological therapies. Some drugs are used specifically to relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety.

What are the types?

Several types of drug are used in the treatment of anxiety. Benzodiazepines are the drugs most commonly prescribed for the short-term treatment of psychological symptoms of anxiety.

Where physical symptoms, such as muscle tremor, are the main problem, beta-blocker drugs may be used instead. Buspirone is sometimes prescribed to treat anxiety because it is less sedating than benzodiazepines. Some antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, may also be used to treat anxiety, as well as post-traumatic stress, phobias, and certain other psychological problems.

Benzodiazepines

These drugs may be used for the treatment of severe anxiety. They reduce agitation and make you feel relaxed.

Benzodiazepines slow mental activity by reducing the signals between brain cells. They are also used as sleeping drugs because they often cause drowsiness. You should not drink alcohol while taking the drugs because it increases the sedative effect. These drugs can also cause confusion, dizziness, lethargy, and poor coordination.

Tolerance to benzodiazepines (in which progressively larger doses are needed to produce the same effect) can develop after as little as 3 days and there is a high risk of users becoming physically and psychologically dependent on the drugs, even after only a few weeks’ use. For these reasons, most doctors are reluctant to prescribe benzodiazepines unless they are absolutely necessary, and then usually only for a maximum period of 4 weeks. Stopping the drugs may also cause withdrawal symptoms, such as excessive anxiety and insomnia. Reducing the dose gradually can minimize such symptoms.

Beta-blocker drugs

Physical symptoms that can occur together with anxiety may be reduced with beta-blockers. These drugs should only be used occasionally and are not suitable for long-term treatment.

The drugs block the actions of two hormones, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), that produce the physical symptoms of anxiety. Beta-blockers reduce heart rate, may prevent palpitations, and can also help to reduce muscle tremor. If you take a beta-blocker, you may find that your sleep is disturbed and that your hands and feet feel cold.

Beta-blockers may precipitate asthma, which can be life-threatening. They should therefore not be used by anybody who has, or has ever had, asthma or similar breathing problems, except in exceptional circumstances and under specialist supervision. Beta-blockers can also mask some of the symptoms of hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose), and the drugs may therefore not be suitable for some people who need to take insulin for diabetes mellitus.

Other antianxiety drugs

The most common of the other drugs used to reduce anxiety is buspirone, which is less addictive than the benzodiazepines and has a less sedative effect. Buspirone can take up to 2 weeks to become fully effective and is therefore not used when immediate relief from stress or anxiety is needed. The drug may cause side effects, such as nervousness, headache, and dizziness. It may also affect your ability to drive or operate machinery.

Warning

Benzodiazepine drugs often cause drowsiness and may affect your ability to drive vehicles or operate machinery.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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