The Long-term Effects of Antianxiety Drugs: Is there a Safe Alternative?
“When I have an anxiety attack, my pupils dilate, I start to sweat, my stomach hurts, my muscles seize up…”
“I feel dread, apprehension, and fear…”
“I feel trapped, and I’d do anything not to feel like that.”
These types of feelings aren’t unusual these days. With so many new social problems to deal with, we’ve all been feeling more anxious. We’re constantly on our phones, we have no boundaries between work and home life, and we may not be spending as much time with others as we did in the past.
Anxiety disorders were on the rise before 2020. Then, when Covid hit, Americans were three times as likely to have either an anxiety or depressive disorder than the year before.
And it’s only gotten worse. So, of course, we’re looking for solutions to simply get through the day — or better yet, to live a happy and fulfilling life. That’s where antianxiety drugs come in.
Year after year, prescriptions have been rising for these drugs. And while antianxiety medications can be extremely helpful — even vital — at a crisis point, they can be dangerous long-term.
So, what are these drugs? What dangers do they have with long-term use? And is there a safer alternative?
What are the Different Antianxiety Drugs?
Physicians prescribe antianxiety drugs for two main reasons:
- To reduce the immediate effects of an anxiety attack
- To work over the long term to reduce day-to-day anxiety or depression
Four main classes of drugs treat anxiety disorders: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs), Tricyclic Antidepressants, and Benzodiazepines.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
SSRIs are widely used to help depression and anxiety. Brand names include:
- Zoloft (sertraline)
- Prozac (fluoxetine)
- Celexa (citalopram)
- Lexapro (escitalopram)
- Paxil (paroxetine)
- Luvox (fluvoxamine)
These drugs allow serotonin (the “feel good” chemical) to remain active for a longer time in the brain. This helps improve mood and reduce anxiety by increasing the levels of the brain chemical GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).
GABA is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in your brain) that blocks or inhibits chemical messages between brain cells and decreases the stimulation of nerve cells in the brain. This makes you feel calm and gives you a sense of well-being.
Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)
Another common treatment for anxiety and depression, SNRIs include:
- Effexor (venlafaxine)
- Pristiq (desvenlafaxine)
- Cymbalta (duloxetine)
- Savella (milnacipran)
- Fetzima (levomilnacipran).
SNRIs increase both serotonin and norepinephrine: Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes mood, while norepinephrine influences emotions, alertness, and energy. Like SSRIs, SNRIs don’t provide immediate relief; rather, they work as a longer-term treatment.
Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs) were one of the first antidepressants, introduced in the late 1950s. These include:
- Tofranil (imipramine)
- Anafranil (clomipramine)
- Pamelor (nortryptiline)
- Vivactil (protriptyline)
- Norpramin (desipramine)
Doctors may prescribe TCAs after other drugs (like SSRIs or SNRIs) haven’t worked. But they’re not often used as the first choice for treatment.
Some of the most widely prescribed drugs to treat anxiety are benzodiazepines. These include:
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Restoril (temazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Halcion (triazolam)
- Noctamid (lormetazepam)
Benzodiazepines also increase GABA in the brain but work within minutes to hours — unlike other forms of antianxiety drugs, which may take days to weeks.
They were developed in the late 1950s/early 1960s to replace barbiturates, which were a major cause of death at that time.
Benzodiazepines are meant to be taken for no more than a month to reduce intense and debilitating anxiety symptoms. However, prescriptions have been rising over the past two to three decades, and many people have been taking them for years to decades.
This is where the real danger comes in.
“If you’re using them judiciously, every once in a while, for acute anxiety, it may not be too much of a problem. If you take them every day, multiple times a day, abruptly discontinuing these medicines is very uncomfortable.” – Dr. Julie Holland, Psychiatrist
What are some Long-term Effects of Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines can be highly addictive, and dependence can begin within three weeks after starting to take them.
A few of the most common effects of benzodiazepines include:
- drowsiness, fatigue
- dizziness, poor balance
- impaired cognitive functioning
- blurred vision
- tolerance (need more and more of it to get the same effect)
- disruption of short-term and long-term memory function
- increased risk of dementia
These effects are even greater when a person takes these drugs for a long time — and coming off them can be even worse.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal, particularly after long-term use, can be incredibly difficult. And it can take a long time to come off these drugs, as you need to taper the dose down as slowly as possible to prevent the more serious effects.
“The consequences can be severe. People can become psychotic, they can have seizures, they can have severe anxiety, terrible insomnia. I’ve even seen the stress of benzodiazepine withdrawal result in suicidal thoughts and even suicide attempts.” – Jeff Gold, PharmD, Psychiatric Pharmacist
What are some Long-Term Effects of Other Antianxiety Drugs?
Unlike benzodiazepines, SSRIs and SNRIs are not considered addictive, and withdrawal can be safe as long as it’s done under medical supervision. However, long-term use can cause various side effects, including:
- sleep problems
- sexual dysfunction
- weight gain
- reduced positive feelings
- suicidal thoughts
Additionally, antidepressants can stop working, particularly SSRIs. Studies have shown that 25% of those using an SSRI will see a decrease in effectiveness over time.
Is There a Safer Alternative to Antianxiety Drugs?
Antianxiety drugs like benzodiazepines can provide vital assistance in dealing with acute, intense anxiety attacks. But they’re not a long-term solution — and can even be extremely damaging.
Yet, when you have an anxiety disorder, you’d do anything to take the intense pressure away and let go of all that stress and worry.
We understand. That’s why we offer an entirely new approach to treating anxiety disorders, that’s drug-free, non-invasive, and, most importantly, lasting.
It’s called MeRT, or Magnetic e-Resonance Therapy. And the Brain Treatment Center Newport Beach is the flagship MeRT treatment center.
We were the first clinic in the world to use MeRT technology, and have treated over 5,000 patients in the past decade.
How MeRT Helps Relieve Anxiety
Studies have shown altered brain wave oscillations in patients suffering from anxiety and depression. The MeRT treatment protocol uses a magnetic field to balance and stimulate brain function.
We do this by testing each patient using sophisticated diagnostics and imaging through a qEEG, also called “brain mapping.” This brain map gives us a clear understanding of what’s happening in each person’s brain, so we can customize the treatment.
Then, we tailor a personalized protocol of TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) to target the precise areas indicated by the testing. As a result, MeRT can improve brain communication and synchronization. By stimulating and reorganizing brain function, we can help ease anxiety and achieve significant, long-lasting improvements.
To learn more about exactly how this works, please visit our MeRT for Anxiety page.
There is Hope! Contact us to Learn How MeRT Can Free You from Your Anxiety!
We understand how incredibly difficult it can be to deal with anxiety.
We also know that anxiety medications can have serious long-term effects, but you may not have realized there was another solution — until now.
Our goal is to help guide you through our MeRT process so you can make an informed decision about whether MeRT is the right treatment.
Many of our clinicians and technicians have gone through MeRT treatment and have experienced incredible results firsthand. As a result, they are passionate about helping you to heal, too.
Our New Patient Coordinator is available to answer any questions that you may have about how MeRT can help you specifically. She’ll take the time to listen to your concerns and put your mind at ease. She can also help get you scheduled with the clinic should you decide to move forward with treatment.
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