Affecting nearly one out of every five Americans, anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in the United States. Characterized by debilitating symptoms of panic, fear, and stress, it’s no surprise that anti-anxiety medications have become some of the most widely prescribed medications. Here’s a brief overview of the different types of prescription medications used for managing anxiety, how they work, and the risks they carry. 

What Is Anxiety & How Is It Treated?

Anxiety is a natural emotion that all of us experience from time to time. It’s the nervousness of speaking in front of a group of people for the first time, taking an important test, or going on a first date. As part of the fight-or-flight response, anxiety normally goes away once the source of the stress has been removed. Anxiety enters mental illness territory (an anxiety disorder) when this feeling will persist well after the “threat” is gone or is experienced without a justifiable cause.

Anxiety disorders are a broad umbrella term that describes a mental condition that can manifest itself in various ways. They are grouped into four main categories: 

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (chronic anxiety, worry, or tensions, with little no rational cause)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (recurring thoughts or behaviors where one feels they must perform some sort of ‘ritual’ to make the intrusive thoughts go away)
  • Panic disorder (Intense and unexpected episodes of intense fear and stress along with heart palpitations, dizziness, and shortness of breath)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (Experiencing flashbacks from traumatic past events and can involve sensory hallucinations, in addition to cognitive and emotional distress)

This condition can strike unexpectedly and at inappropriate times, interfering with one’s ability to carry out day-to-day functions. There’s still much that science doesn’t know about anxiety. Currently, there are two main types of anxiety treatments: psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy are two specific forms of psychotherapy that have proven to be highly effective. They teach individuals how to better manage their symptoms and gain control over their condition. Medications are effective for providing immediate relief from symptoms that might otherwise make it impossible to function in a normal capacity. 

Types of Medications Used to Treat Anxiety

There are many different types of anxiety which therefore require different types of relief. Some of the most well-known prescription pills today are medications used for anxiety, such as Xanax, Prozac, and Zoloft. These medications can be grouped into four major classifications which specify the specific pathway of how they work. 


Barbiturates or “barbs” are sedatives that paved the way for many of today’s modern anti-anxiety medications. These central nervous system depressants affect GABA neurotransmitters, slowing the messages that are sent and received by the brain and nerve receptors. The results include muscle relaxation, slowed breathing, and heart rate–effectively counteracting the most immediate effects of an anxiety attack. Barbiturates are powerful but unpredictable. Even when used as instructed they can accidentally become habit-forming which is why they’ve largely been abandoned for a newer type of medication.


More commonly known as “benzos” for short is a type of sedative that functions in a way that’s almost identical to barbiturates. Both affect GABA neurotransmitters, but unlike barbs, benzos don’t affect the GABA receptor directly, but simply make it more sensitive and more effective. This way it’s able to create similar sedative effects but with a lower risk of addiction. Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin are a few of the most well-known benzodiazepines and are used to treat a number of anxiety disorders. 


There are several types of antidepressants: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclics, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Each works differently, making some better suited for treating some times of anxiety than others. Some things they have in common is that they aren’t fast-acting and can take 4-6 weeks to take effect. 

SSRIs such as Prozac and Zoloft work by increasing levels of serotonin and can be used to treat most types of anxiety disorders. Tricyclics work similarly to SSRIs but are known to have more side effects and aren’t used as often. When tricyclics are used, they can treat everything other than OCD. MAOIs help regulate mood by increasing the number of neurotransmitters available and are used to treat panic disorders and social phobia. 


Short for beta-adrenergic block agents, beta-blockers are traditionally used to treat heart issues. They do this by widening veins and arteries, which in addition to lowering blood pressure, also causes the heart to beat more slowly. However, they are popular for off-label use to treat social anxiety disorder thanks to their ability to block the effects of adrenaline, the hormone largely responsible for our fight-or-flight response.  

If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other kind of mental illness, learn more about what treatment could do for you. Find the nearest mental health rehab facility to you here