Anxiolytic: Definition, Medications & Dependence

Instructor: Jennifer Kinder
This lesson discusses anxiolytics and the reasons they are prescribed. We will explore the different types of anxiolytic medications available, the risks associated with using certain kinds of anxiolytics, and the potential for dependence.


Lisa is going through an emotionally difficult divorce after five years of marriage. She alternates between feeling anxious about her future and sad that her life is turning out differently than she planned. A week ago she began to experience chest pain. She also was sweating, felt dizzy, and couldn't seem to catch her breath. Lisa was so scared she was having a heart attack that she called 911 and was taken to the hospital. The ER doctors ran multiple tests and couldn't find anything wrong with her. They suggested she follow up with her primary care doctor. At Lisa's first appointment, her doctor diagnosed her as having panic attacks. He referred her to a psychologist who could help her understand and cope with the attacks. The doctor also prescribed a short-term course of anxiolytics so Lisa could stop her panic attacks temporarily until she learned the skills needed to manage them permanently.

Anxiolytics are medications used to treat anxiety. Anxiety is a mental health condition which develops when an individual experiences fear or uncertainty. Although anxiety itself can be a useful motivator, it is problematic when the fear greatly outweighs the actual danger an individual experiences. For example, because Lisa was experiencing a great fear of dying in the absence of an actual fatal condition, her overwhelming anxiety was debilitating and required treatment. Conversely, with a college student experiencing anxiety over completing a presentation, the anxiety might actually motivate him or her to work diligently on completing the presentation.

The most commonly prescribed anxiolytics are called benzodiazepines. However, because benzodiazepines have such a high potential for addiction, other medications are also used to treat anxiety. The other medications work to reduce anxiety, but have more subtle and less immediate effects.

Anxiolytic Medications

As described above, benzodiazepines are most often prescribed to treat acute anxiety. However, other medications such as antihistamines and buspirone have also been used to reduce the potential for abuse.


Benzodiazepines work by altering a specific brain chemical, called GABA. GABA is involved in regulating anxiety, which is why benzodiazepines are so chemically effective. Benzodiazepines generally offer significant relief from anxiety within minutes of taking the medication. They can also have a strong sedating effect, which can cause someone to be impaired. Benzodiazepines have a very high potential for abuse due to the sedative and often euphoric effect (enjoying a wonderful and blissful feeling) they can have. Typical generic benzodiazepines prescribed are alprazolam, lorazepam, clonazepam, or diazepam. Brand names include Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, or Valium. Older generations typically refer to these medications as 'nerve pills.' For example, you might have older relatives who were prescribed benzodiazepines to calm their 'nerves.'


Antihistamines are considered an anxiolytic medication that reduces anxiety by producing a sedative effect. However, they were not originally designed for this purpose. Antihistamines were initially prescribed to treat symptoms caused by allergies. Due to some sedating effects of these medications, it was found they can also provide some immediate relief for anxiety.

Brand names for antihistamines prescribed to treat anxiety are Atarax or Vistaril. Antihistamines are useful for the treatment of anxiety because they are non-habit forming or addictive. However, they also do not produce the strong immediate sedative effect of a benzodiazepine.


Buspirone is a newer anxiolytic medication developed to better manage anxiety than antihistamines. Like an antihistamine, it does not have the addictive nature of a benzodiazepine. Although it is unknown specifically how buspirone works to treat anxiety, it is believed to affect the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Buspirone is often prescribed to treat a specific anxiety disorder called Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or daily anxiety that makes it difficult for someone to function in their life.

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