If you are a nail-biter, a hair-twister, or a forehead-rubber, or if you unnecessarily worry or feel fatigued, restless or lightheaded, the National Institute of Mental Health and researchers at North Dakota and Michigan State universities suggest you may suffer from anxiety. Mild anxiety isn't always bad -- it can help you prepare for an event in which performance matters, such as taking a test or giving a speech. At times, however, it can be unrelated to a specific event, or your stress may be disproportionate to the occasion. Several classes of medications effectively diminish mild anxiety.
Anxiety is not a new or small issue. Forty million American adults develop an anxiety disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Researchers at Michigan State University explain that when the brain perceives threats, a cascade of physiological events prepares the body to protect itself, either by escaping or by fighting. While this mechanism was quite adaptive in prehistoric times--prompting humans to run from woolly mammoths, for example--the brain can't distinguish between real and perceived threats, and anxiety symptoms arise even when a threat isn't compelling. Medications are one of the two most effective approaches to treating mild anxiety.
Records of anxiety symptoms date back for centuries, but anxiety-related problems were not recognized as separate illnesses from general stress until the 1960s, when doctors began differentiating unexpected anxiety from routine stress. In 1980, panic attacks were added to the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Barbiturates were widely used to treat anxiety in the 1960s, but because of their sedating effect and addiction potential, they were quickly replaced by benzodiazepines and antidepressants.
The National Institute of Mental Health outlines three classes of drugs that treat mild anxiety: Antidepressants; benzodiazepines, which are minor tranquilizers; and beta-blockers.
Antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, mono amine oxidase inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants and a few related others in classes by themselves. Antidepressants increase the availability between nerve cells of brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. With fewer side effects than their predecessors, SSRIs are often a first-line treatment for mild anxiety. Common side effects of antidepressants include headache, nausea, blurred vision, sleeplessness, dry mouth, drowsiness, sexual performance problems, constipation and difficulty urinating.
Benzodiazepines increase a brain chemical called GABA, bringing about relaxation. Medicines in this class work more quickly to reduce anxiety but also carry a risk of addiction. For this reason, physicians often prescribe these medicines only for short-term or occasional use. Buspirone is a related medicine with no addiction potential. Common side effects of benzodiazepines include dizziness and drowsiness.
Beta blockers such as propanolol, traditionally used to treat heart conditions and high blood pressure, reduce the physiological effects of anxiety, such as sweating and trembling. Common side effects of beta blockers include fatigue, cold hands, dizziness and weakness.
Always follow your doctor's dosing and administration instructions. Abruptly stopping benzodiazepines and antidepressants can cause uncomfortable side effects or seizures. If prescribed MAOIs, you must follow a strict regimen to avoid ingesting a substance found in aged foods and some medicines, tyramine, which may cause high blood pressure leading to stroke.
A 2004 Food and Drug Administration study found that children and adolescents are susceptible to increased suicidal thoughts and behaviors when taking antidepressants. Report any suicidal thoughts immediately to your doctor.
Because of the risk of addiction, weigh the benefits and risks of benzodiazepine use with your doctor, and never take more than prescribed. Never drink alcohol or use illicit drugs with medications for mild anxiety. This combination can create an additive effect, and can cause respiratory failure and death.
Before taking drugs for mild anxiety, ask your doctor to perform a comprehensive physical examination. Some medical conditions create symptoms that mimic anxiety, and taking medications to reduce these symptoms may mask a bigger problem. Review all the medications you are taking with your doctor. Some medications cause side effects that imitate mild anxiety, and a simple dose adjustment may eliminate the problem. If medications for mild anxiety become part of your treatment plan, talk with your doctor about adding another proven treatment--psychotherapy--to manage your symptoms.