How Antianxiety Medications Work: An Introduction
Brain cells (neurons) use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate with each other. Antianxiety medications act on neurons in the brain to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. All of the medications are effective because they bind to the parts of neurons that are involved in producing the symptoms of anxiety.
One class of drug, the benzodiazepines, which includes alprazolam (Xanax®), lorazepam (Ativan®), and clonazepam (Klonopin®), work as sedatives at low doses. These medications bind to the parts of neurons that reduce anxiety, soothe excitability, and generally calm people who use them. At higher doses, benzodiazepines are used to help people sleep.
Benzodiazepines take effect quickly and may be the best choice for short-term treatment. This type of drug is effective in 65-75% of the individuals who take it. Unfortunately, the benzodiazepines can be addictive and many people experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the medication.
Another important anxiety medication is buspirone (Buspar®). As with the SSRIs, buspirone takes a few weeks to reach effectiveness and does not cause addiction, withdrawal, or mental confusion. Buspirone is known to be very effective in treating people with generalized anxiety disorder. Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder may be due to an imbalance of a brain chemical called "serotonin" (sear-a toe-nin). Too much serotonin may be one of the causes of generalized anxiety disorder. Buspirone is thought to bring serotonin levels back to normal. It works gradually, over a 2- to 4-week period, to provide effective relief of generalized anxiety disorder symptoms. With each passing week, anxiety symptoms are likely to improve, excessive worry and tension may subside, and so may physical symptoms, like headaches and stomach upset. GENERALIZED ANXIETY DISORDER CANNOT BE TREATED OVERNIGHT. It takes time for your symptoms to develop, and it will take time for buspirone to work. In a few weeks, you are likely to be feeling like yourself again.