Doctors often prescribe anti-depressant medication for anxiety disorders as well as for depression. These medications - such as Zoloft, Cymbalta, and Prozac - raise serotonin levels in the brain. This seems to help anxiety, as well as depression - as similar brain mechanisms appear to be involved in both conditions. Antidepressant medication for anxiety can be better than simple anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines (eg Valium or Xanax), since they do not have the same tolerance effects as benzodiazepines, and are often more effective on an ongoing basis. (Find out more about anti-depressants for anxiety here.)
However, anti-depressants may not be as helpful, or as safe, as we have been led to believe. Medical News Today reports that anti-depressants may be doing more harm than good:
Anti-depressant medications – too much risk, too little benefit.
Paul Andrews, assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience & behaviour at McMaster University, is the lead author of a new journal article that describes why anti-depressant medication appears to do more harm than good.
Commonly prescribed anti-depressants appear to be doing patients more harm than good, say researchers who have published a paper examining the impact of the medications on the entire body.
"We need to be much more cautious about the widespread use of these drugs," says Paul Andrews, an evolutionary biologist at McMaster University and lead author of the article, published in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology.
"It's important because millions of people are prescribed anti-depressants each year, and the conventional wisdom about these drugs is that they're safe and effective."
Andrews and his colleagues examined previous patient studies into the effects of anti-depressants and determined that the benefits of most anti-depressants, even taken at their best, compare poorly to the risks, which include premature death in elderly patients.
Anti-depressants are designed to relieve the symptoms of depression by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain, where it regulates mood. The vast majority of serotonin that the body produces, though, is used for other purposes, including digestion, forming blood clots at wound sites, reproduction and development.
The researchers found that people taking anti-depressants were more likely to suffer from digestive problems, sexual problems, and abnormal bleeding and stroke in elderly patients. They also found higher risks of infertility and developmental problems in babies.
According to three recent studies, they noted, elderly people taking anti-depressants had higher death rates than others with similar health profiles who were not taking anti-depressants.
If your medical practitioner wants to prescribe anti-depressants for you, all of these risks need to be weighed against the possible benefits, especially for the elderly and for pregnant women.
In previous research, Andrews and his colleagues had questioned the effectiveness of anti-depressants even for their prescribed function, finding that patients were more likely to suffer relapse after going off their medications as their brains worked to re-establish equilibrium.
With even the intended function of anti-depressants in question, Andrews says it is important to look critically at their continuing use.
You can read the full article here.
If you are taking anti-depressant medication for anxiety and you find it helps, you probably should keep taking it, especially if you don't fall into one of the high-risk groups. It's also not a good idea to stop these medications cold turkey!
If you do decide you would rather try to overcome your anxiety without medication, you should first discuss it with your doctor. In most cases, it is best to taper off gradually.
You also should have some other strategies in place to manage stress and anxiety – strategies that you have already practiced and feel confident about using in different situations.
To find out about natural ways to overcome anxiety, check out these articles: