Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the United States and affects millions of people worldwide. And yet, many people wait years before seeking treatment, or never receive treatment at all. Stigma and access to mental health care both play a big role in the number of people who don’t get the care they deserve, which can include prescription medication. A logical follow-up is: are there over-the-counter medications for anxiety?
While anxiety is a normal and healthy response to stress, excessive anxiety or chronic anxiety that interferes with daily life might require support from a mental health professional.
Anxiety can be mild or severe and can manifest differently in different people, but it is a treatable condition and getting support, whether through therapy, medication, or both can improve your overall wellbeing.
Here are some symptoms to look out for:
Some of the most common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. The only way to receive a diagnosis of one of these disorders is by a healthcare professional who can determine whether you have anxiety and plan the best treatment for you.
Antidepressants, including medications in the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) classes, are the first line and most common medication treatments. SSRIs work by increasing levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. Increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain improves communication between nerve cells, leading to improved mood and lower levels of anxiety. SNRIs affect the reabsorption of both serotonin and norepinephrine by the neurons that released them.
Antianxiety medication from a class called benzodiazepines calm the nervous system, providing short term relief of anxiety and panic disorder symptoms. However, because they can be habit-forming, these sedatives are generally used only for relieving acute anxiety on a short-term basis, and might not be a good choice if you have a history of alcohol or drug abuse.
A class of medications called atypical antipsychotics are often taken in combination with an antidepressant on a daily basis for people who have symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder do not respond to antidepressant medication alone.
A blood pressure medication called a beta blocker may be used by people with social phobia or specific anxieties, such as fear of public speaking or social interaction.
Psychiatric medications can only be prescribed by a licensed medical professional such as a psychiatrist, primary care physician, physician’s assistant, or nurse practitioner (depending on the US state in which you live). If you are in therapy, it's great for this person to work in partnership with your therapist. Mention to your therapist that you're considering medication, or if your therapist is the one who brought it up, you might want to unpack and talk through what that means for you with your therapist. If you’re not working with a therapist yet but finding one has been on your to-do list, check out our ultimate guide to starting therapy.
Over-the-counter, or OTC, medication refers to items you can buy without a prescription. Anything over-the-counter that you would use to help alleviate anxiety symptoms would typically be designed for another purpose, but their side effects or other properties could potentially help with anxiety symptoms. It’s important to note that no over-the-counter medication has been approved by the FDA for use as an anxiety medication.
There are a number of over-the-counter medications and supplements that could be used to manage mild anxiety symptoms, depending on what those symptoms are. Remember that nothing you read here or elsewhere should be used as a substitute for professional medical advice.
Several herbal remedies have been studied as treatments for anxiety, such as valerian root, kava, passionflower, lavender, L-theanine, lemon balm, and chamomile. Results are often mixed and in a number of studies, users have reported no benefit from their use. More research is needed to determine the possible benefits and risks of using herbal supplements to treat anxiety symptoms.
Herbal supplements aren't monitored by the FDA the same way medications are. Despite enhanced quality control regulations in place since 2010, the quality of some supplements may still be an issue. Remember, natural doesn't always mean safe.
If anxiety symptoms are affecting sleep and a lack of or disrupted sleep is therefore affecting daytime anxiety symptoms, sleep aids like Melatonin (which is a hormone that regulates sleep) can be used to help people get to and stay asleep
Antihistamines like Benadryl are used for allergic reactions but a common side effect is sedation, which is why you’ll find the active ingredient, diphenhydramine, in a lot of over-the-counter sleep aids as well. Because of its ability to sedate, people have been known to use Benadryl for its calming side effects.
There are several vitamin and mineral preparations that are marketed as stress-busters. These products typically claim to replenish the vitamins and minerals that are likely to be diminished in times of stress. They also lean on the fact that a lack of a certain vitamin or mineral may produce anxiety as a symptom. In reality, unless you have a known deficiency, there is no medical evidence that vitamin and mineral supplements can help with your anxiety or stress. If you think you might have a deficiency, your doctor can perform blood tests to find out.
They’ll be able to determine which treatment options are best suited for you and warn you of any side effects, potential complications, or whether the over-the-counter medication you’re interested in will present any problems with other medications you might be taking or conditions you might have. It’s also important to note that persistent or severe anxiety symptoms are unlikely to be influenced by over-the-counter medication, and even mild anxiety symptoms most likely won’t be helped long-term by over-the-counter options.
The decision to take prescription medication for anxiety is a personal one, and your therapist and doctor can help you decide and explain the expected effects of the medications on your symptoms as well as any potential side effects.
If you’re wondering right now whether medication might be right for you, here are a few things to consider:
Please remember to never combine over-the-counter medication with your prescription medication for anxiety without the advice of your doctor, as negative interactions and side effects can occur.
The decision to take medication for anxiety is ultimately yours and should be made in consultation with a healthcare professional you trust who can help you weigh the risks and benefits and determine the best course of treatment for you.
Again, folks with more severe symptoms, long-term feelings of anxiety, or anxiety disorders will benefit most from therapy, medication, or a combination of both, but everyone can benefit from lifestyle changes, and many of them can positively impact anxiety symptoms regardless of your treatment plan.
Here are a few lifestyle changes you can try:
While it may seem like an easy fix to go to the pharmacy and pick up an over-the-counter medication to try and manage your anxiety symptoms on your own, the downsides potentially outweigh the benefits. One of the main benefits of speaking to a mental health professional is that they will be able to work with you to unpack your anxiety in the first place.
If you're considering using over-the-counter treatments, you should still talk to your doctor or a healthcare professional, especially if you're taking other over-the-counter medications or prescription medications.
Remember that taking prescription medication for your mental health is the same as taking medication for other things that have to do with your health, such as high blood pressure.
For some people, it's the right decision, and for others it might not be the right choice. Some people choose therapy and medication together while others find that talking to a therapist gives them the care they need. The most important thing is that you are informed and supported so that you can be well.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.
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