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The Science Behind Anti-Anxiety Medication

The Science Behind Anti-Anxiety Medication Image
Susan Vachon

Medically reviewed by Susan Vachon, PA-C on February 4, 2022

Written by Nurx
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Anxiety is a multi-faceted condition, but scientists have found a way to fight back against it with anti-anxiety medication. When you take anti-anxiety medication, you’ll likely notice your symptoms get a lot better. There’s a reason for that, and it’s all in the science. Here’s a bit more about how both anxiety and the medications that treat it work from a medical perspective.

The Science Behind Anxiety

The thing about anxiety is that there’s not just one type. Generalized anxiety disorder is typically the most common, but people can also suffer from panic disorder and phobia-related disorders. Still, the mechanisms behind anxiety itself are all pretty similar, regardless of what specific condition it manifests as.

Anxiety happens when there’s an imbalance in the emotional processing center of the brain. This part of the brain is called the limbic system, and it’s made up of regions like the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus.

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People who are feeling anxious often have increased activity in these areas, meaning their brain is perpetually caught in a fight-or-flight response. This explains the rapid heartbeat, tight muscles, and shallow breathing that typically accompany anxiety. This overstimulation of the limbic system also leads to an imbalance of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, which we’ll go more into below.

Types of Anti-Anxiety Medications and How They Work

Most anti-anxiety medications work by trying to calm down the overactive limbic system. Each type of medicine works in a slightly different way, and which one might be best for you all depends on your specific symptoms and medical history.


These days, antidepressants have become a first-choice treatment for many people with anxiety disorders, because they can help reduce and manage anxiety symptoms in a safe way without sedative effects.

The specific types of antidepressants typically recommended for anxiety are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They work by stopping your brain from recycling the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and other vital functions in the body. When your serotonin levels are too low, it can lead to anxiety.

By helping more serotonin stay active in your brain, SSRIs can improve your symptoms. Not only that, but taking SSRIs for a long time can ultimately lead to changes with other neurotransmitters and even genes in the brain, leading to long-term neurochemical changes that can improve your wellbeing.

SSRIs do have some side effects like benzos, but generally, they are easier to deal with. You might experience dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, fatigue, decreased sex drive, and more, but as your body gets used to changes in brain chemistry, these typically resolve.


While buspirone is an emerging treatment for anxiety, unfortunately, scientists don’t know exactly what causes it to work. They do know that it attaches to serotonin receptors in the brain, meaning it may help increase serotonin activity (and therefore improve your mood).

Generally, a doctor will prescribe you buspirone if you’re already taking an SSRI and not getting enough relief from your symptoms. Buspirone provides just enough extra support to help a lot of people feel better. 

Side effects for this medication are similar to those of SSRIs since they both affect serotonin in the brain.

Beta blockers

If you experience situational anxiety, such as performance anxiety, and need a quick resolution for your symptoms, beta-blockers might be the way to go. That said, they don’t treat the cognitive and emotional symptoms of anxiety-like some of these other medications do, so they’re really only recommended to improve your performance during anxious moments.

Beta blockers work by preventing what’s called your beta receptors, especially the ones in your heart, from receiving adrenaline. As you may know, adrenaline is a stress hormone that may cause a pounding heart, shaky hands or sudden perspiration. Those “fight or flight” physiological reactions to adrenaline are all meant to protect you from danger, but in every day work or social situations, they can make you feel pretty terrible.

Beta blockers reduce these symptoms so you won’t feel the physical effects of anxiety as much. You’ll likely still feel mentally stressed or nervous, but it should be easier to manage.

Because of these effects, beta blockers may also be prescribed to some people with high blood pressure or heart failure, and can be used as a daily preventive migraine medication. 


One of the most common medications for anxiety is benzodiazepines, often shortened to benzos. These work by helping to increase certain levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. In particular, they help your brain become more effective at using a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid-A (GABA). GABA is responsible for slowing down signals between nerve cells, and sometimes in people with anxiety, not having enough GABA could be why their limbic system is in overdrive.

When you take benzos, they bind to the receptor sites in your brain responsible for processing GABA. When this happens, your brain begins to slow down, helping to reduce your symptoms.

Because benzos can become habit-forming and have some pretty potent side effects (confusion, headaches, and vision problems), most doctors only recommend that you take them for a couple of weeks at a time to help your symptoms improve. If you need a more long-term treatment, they may recommend antidepressants instead. Note: Nurx does not prescribe benzodiazepines.

Could Anti-Anxiety Medication Be Right for You?

If you constantly feel stressed and anxious, taking an anti-anxiety medication might help you overcome your symptoms and feel more relaxed. As you can see, there are a wide variety of options that all work slightly differently in the brain. Don’t worry — you won’t be expected to decide which of these drugs would work best for you. That’s what a medical professional is for!

When you consult with a medical professional, they’ll ask you more about your anxiety symptoms as well as your medical history. With that knowledge, they’ll be able to provide a personalized anxiety treatment plan to help you start feeling better.



This blog pro­vides infor­ma­tion about telemed­i­cine, health and related sub­jects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be con­strued as a substitute for, med­ical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or per­son with a med­ical con­cern should con­sult with an appropriately-licensed physi­cian or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes.

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