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Reviewed by Angela Sheddan, DNP, FNP-BC
Written by Our Editorial Team
Anxiety is a common, normal feeling that can occur in certain situations, such as during a major event, before an exam or in a job interview.
Everyone experiences anxiety. However, for some people, anxiety can be a severe or persistent problem.
If your anxiety occurs frequently and interferes with your daily life, it’s often a sign that you may have an anxiety disorder.
Several types of medication are used to treat anxiety. Some work quickly and provide an almost instant reduction in your symptoms, while others can take several months to reduce the severity of your anxiety and change the way you respond to certain situations.
Below, we’ve listed the instant anxiety relief medications that are currently available. We’ve also covered how these medications work, their potential side effects and why they aren’t always the best choice if you have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are common. In fact, diagnostic interview data from the National Comorbidity Study Replication (NCS-R) suggests that an estimated 31.1 percent of US adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in life.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Social anxiety disorder (SAD, or social phobia)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Separation anxiety disorder
The specific symptoms of anxiety can vary from one disorder to another.
Anxiety disorders are typically treated with behavioral therapy, medication and changes to your habits and lifestyle.
Some anxiety medications, such as antidepressants, start working gradually over the course of several weeks or months.
Others are absorbed quickly by your body and provide relief from the symptoms of anxiety in just a few minutes.
Most instant relief anxiety medications belong to a class of drugs called benzodiazepines (also called “benzos”).
Benzodiazepines work by increasing levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
GABA slows down certain functions of your nervous system and lowers the severity of many anxiety symptoms.
As well as anxiety disorders, many benzodiazepines are prescribed to treat insomnia, seizures, agitation and other conditions.
Common benzodiazepines include:
Diazepam (sold as Valium®)
Benzodiazepines are absorbed quickly and provide rapid relief from anxiety. For example, the common anxiety medication diazepam is absorbed by the body in a few minutes and reaches peak concentration in the bloodstream in approximately one hour.
This means that when you use benzodiazepines, you’ll generally feel relaxed — both physically and mentally — fairly quickly.
The results aren’t necessarily instant, but they’re faster than other medications used to treat and manage anxiety.
Your healthcare provider may prescribe a benzodiazepine if you’re prone to acute symptoms of anxiety, such as sudden, severe feelings of worry or panic attacks. Some benzodiazepines are intended to be used several times a day to control anxiety symptoms.
Although benzodiazepines are effective at controlling anxiety in the short term, they have a few downsides that make them less ideal as long-term treatments for anxiety.
The first downside of benzodiazepines is that they can become less effective over time. Some people who take benzodiazepines need to increase their dosage in order to maintain the same effects over the long term.
Because of this, benzodiazepines usually aren’t prescribed for chronic anxiety. Instead, they’re generally used as a short-term form of treatment for controlling anxiety levels.
Benzodiazepines can also cause dependence. If you’re taking this type of medication, you must consult with your healthcare provider if you need or wish to stop.
Benzodiazepines can cause withdrawal symptoms or a return of anxiety if stopped suddenly, and should be tapered under the guidance of a healthcare provider.
Another major downside of benzodiazepines is their side effect risk. Many benzodiazepines can cause adverse effects, including the following:
Dizziness or light-headedness
Appetite and/or weight changes
Changes in sex drive and/or function
Many benzodiazepines can also cause dangerous drug interactions, particularly when used with pain management medications.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has highlighted the dangers of using benzodiazepines and opioid painkillers.
Since both medications produce sedation and slowed breathing, they can lead to overdose deaths when used together.
These risks recently prompted the FDA to add a boxed warning — the most prominent drug safety warning — to the packaging of benzodiazepines.
Because of these adverse effects and drug interactions, it’s important to inform your healthcare provider about any medications you use or have recently used before using benzodiazepines to manage your anxiety.
In addition to benzodiazepines, other medications are also used to manage anxiety. If you have performance anxiety, your healthcare provider may suggest using a beta-blocker to control your physical symptoms.
Beta-blockers are medications that are used to treat tachycardia (rapid heart rate), hypertension (high blood pressure) and other cardiovascular health issues.
They work by lowering your heart rate and promoting physical relaxation.
Taking a beta-blocker is a quick, simple way to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a pounding heartbeat, shaking or trembling.
However, this type of medication won’t treat the psychological symptoms of anxiety, such as any feelings of worry, fear or being out of control.
One beta-blocker that’s often used to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety is propranolol (sold as Inderal®).
Our guide to propranolol for performance anxiety explains how it works, as well as how it’s commonly used as an as-needed anxiety treatment.
Benzodiazepines and beta-blockers both work quickly to treat anxiety as needed, but both types of medications have significant downsides.
For benzodiazepines, it’s often the loss of effectiveness and dependence. For beta-blockers, it’s the fact that although they’re effective at managing anxiety’s physical symptoms, they do little to help with the psychological side of most anxiety disorders.
Luckily, numerous other options are available for treating anxiety, including medications, therapy and habits that you can use to stay in control of your symptoms.
In addition to treating depression, many antidepressants are also effective at controlling anxiety symptoms.
Antidepressants work by increasing the levels of certain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, in your brain.
Medications of this type are usually slower to work than benzodiazepines, but can often treat anxiety without the same issues.
If you have anxiety, your healthcare provider may suggest using a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) to treat your symptoms.
Our guide to antidepressants for anxiety goes into more detail about these medications and how they work as anxiety treatments.
Buspirone (sold as BuSpar®) is another type of medication for anxiety. It’s used to treat anxiety that lasts for six months or longer.
Buspirone is effective for many people, but it can take three to four weeks to start producing improvements.
Like other mental health disorders, anxiety often improves with psychotherapy, either on its own or in combination with medication.
Several types of psychotherapy are used to treat anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves learning new ways to think and react to situations that cause anxiety, and exposure therapy, which involves directly confronting the factors that make you feel anxious.
Our guide to therapy for anxiety explains more about the different types of therapy used to treat anxiety disorders.
Many habits and lifestyle changes can make anxiety less severe. Some of these changes can even produce immediate improvements by distracting you from the thoughts or situations that make you feel anxious. Try the following habits and techniques for anxiety relief:
Exercise regularly. Research shows that exercise, and particularly high-intensity forms of exercise, helps to treat anxiety. Keep yourself physically active, whether this means a walk around your neighborhood, a bike ride or an intense workout.
Try natural anxiety treatments. Although research is mixed, some natural treatments may help to treat anxiety. Popular natural remedies for anxiety include CBD, chamomile and lavender oil.
Quit smoking. While the nicotine in cigarettes can have an immediate calming effect — it’s only temporary and anxiety can (and usually does) return. If you’re a smoker, try your hardest to give up smoking to improve your physical and mental health.
Our guide to overcoming anxiety shares other techniques that you can use to deal with anxiety symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Anxiety is a treatable condition, but many anxiety medications that offer instant relief also come with risks and side effects.
If you think you have an anxiety disorder, it’s best to reach out to a mental health provider. You can do this by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral or by using our online psychiatry service to talk to a licensed psychiatry provider from home.
You’ll receive a personalized treatment plan and, if appropriate, medication management with evidence-based medicine.
Since anxiety can differ from person to person, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all medication that works best for everyone. Your healthcare provider will work with you to select a medication that gets your symptoms under control while minimizing side effects and safety risks.
Interested in learning more about anxiety treatments? Our guide to anxiety medication offers a deep dive into the anxiety medications that are currently on the market, from benzodiazepines to SSRIs, SNRIs, beta-blockers and more.