If you can control stress, calm your mind and avoid anxiety then you’ll find it has huge benefits for both your body and your mind. The stress response actually makes us stronger, faster and even smarter in the short term. But over time, this can place a serious strain on the body that eventually wears you down and leaves you more susceptible to illness and other problems.
This is why people who experience a lot of anxiety might consider the use of anti-anxiety medications called anxiolytics. But what exactly do these do? How are they affecting your mental state? And should you use them? Let’s look at the way they work in more detail.
What is an Anxiolytic?
Anxiolytics are any drugs that reduce the stress response and to do this, they alter the neurotransmitters and hormones that the brain produces in order to encourage more calm and to act even as a mild sedative.
One of the main neurotransmitters that anxiolytics act on is GABA. GABA stands for Gamma Aminobutyric Acid and is a neurotransmitter that suppresses neuronal activity. That is to say that when it is released, it prevents neurons from firing. This in turn causes you to experience few thoughts and ‘slower’ thinking. It lowers the heartrate and it makes you less attuned to your surroundings.
GABA is one of the neurotransmitters that is affected by alcohol in fact and is responsible for some of the symptoms that we associate with being drunk. This is why some people will self-medicate with alcohol for stress or social anxiety.
Alternatively, some anxiolytics work by increasing serotonin. Serotonin is the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter and this is also how anti-depressants work such as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors).
To increase GABA, most anxiolytics work by blocking the reuptake of GABA in the brain so that there is more of it free in the brain. When you do this over a long period of time however, it causes changes in the brain and adaptations. Specifically, because there is too much GABA, the brain stops producing as much of it itself and decreases the number of receptors. Now you need to take larger doses of anxiolytics to experience the same heightened levels of GABA and now you will likely feel even more anxious when you’re not using them. This is called ‘tolerance and dependence’ and it can lead to addiction.
What’s more, is that anxiolytics do not address the thinking that leads to the release of those hormones in the first place – it deals with the symptoms rather than dealing with the cause.
And then there are the short term, immediate side effects associated with anxiolytic use such as drowsiness and confusion.
So should you stop using anti-anxiety medication? This is very easy to say but not so easy if you experience frequent and severe bouts of anxiety. You should always listen to your doctor’s advice. But just know that this medication is not a long term solution. Focus on therapy in conjunction with medication in order to address the root cause of the issue more permanently.