What Are Anxiolytics?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on January 09, 2023
3 min read

Anxiolytics are a class of medications used to prevent or treat anxiety symptoms or disorders. They’re sometimes called anti-anxiety medications or minor tranquilizers. Anxiolytic medications are habit-forming and can lead to dependency or a substance use disorder. For this reason, they’re often only prescribed for a short amount of time. 

There are different types of anxiety disorders. For some types, your doctor might use antidepressant medication first. If those don’t work, they might try anxiolytics. 

There are different types of anxiolytic medications that work in different ways. 

Benzodiazepines. These medications are called central nervous system depressants. It’s not entirely clear how benzodiazepines work, but they raise levels of an amino acid in your brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA blocks other activity in your brain, which helps you feel calm and can make you sleepy. 

Some benzodiazepine anxiolytic examples include:

Buspirone (BuSpar) is an older anxiolytic that is sometimes used to treat chronic anxiety and panic. It’s considered non-habit forming but you’ll need to take it for a few weeks before seeing full symptom relief. 

Barbiturates. These anxiolytics work like benzodiazepines, but they’re much stronger. Low doses can ease mild to moderate anxiety and give you a relaxing, calming feeling. These are best used as short-term medications, as they are habit-forming.

Examples of barbiturates include:

Non-benzodiazepine drugs. These have a different structure than benzodiazepines, but they too target GABA in your brain. Non-benzodiazepines are also generally reserved for short-term use. Some include:

Beta-blockers. While normally used for heart conditions, your doctor might prescribe a beta-blocker called propranolol as an off-label anxiolytic. These help relieve anxiety symptoms like an elevated heart rate, sweating, and shaking. Beta-blockers might be prescribed if you have a phobia or overwhelming fear during difficult situations. 

Some anxiolytic drugs are also sedatives, but they’re used differently. Whereas sedatives treat insomnia, epilepsy, other sleep disorders, and can be used for surgery sedation, anxiolytics are specifically an anti-anxiety treatment.

Some short-term side effects of anxiolytics can include:

Long-term anxiolytic use can also cause side effects like:

You should follow your doctor’s orders precisely when you’re using anxiolytics. If you don’t, you can end up with more serious health problems. 

Addiction. You can get cravings for these medications, especially if you take them long-term and in higher doses. Also, the longer you take anxiolytics, the more tolerant you can become to the dose. This means you’ll need higher doses to have the same effect, which can be dangerous for your health. You should not change your dose without your doctor’s instructions. 

Withdrawal. When it’s time to come off anxiolytics, your doctor might slowly taper your dose. This is because if you suddenly stop taking them, you can have withdrawal symptoms like seizures, confusion, restlessness, and insomnia. Some drugs, like barbiturates, can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop your medication.

Overdose. Never take more medication than your doctor prescribes. Taking high doses of anxiolytics can cause poisoning. Barbiturates are especially dangerous. Symptoms include:

Drug interactions. Anxiolytics can stop some medications from working properly. Taking these medications with other substances like alcohol or opiates can be dangerous because they both lower your breathing.