What Are Psychotropic Medications?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on May 15, 2023
3 min read

Psychotropic medications are used to treat mental health disorders. There are five main types of psychotropic medications, and each type has its own specific uses, benefits, and side effects. Your doctor can help you decide which psychotropic medication is right for you. 

Many psychotropic medications work by adjusting the number of major chemicals in the brain. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. Increasing or decreasing certain neurotransmitters can counter the effects of certain mental health disorders

Neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the messengers that allow your brain cells to communicate with one another. If you have weak or overactive neurotransmitters, they can produce unnecessary chemical reactions that lead to a mental health condition. 

Psychotropic medications are not a cure. They can only treat mental health disorders, and they are sometimes most effective when combined with psychotherapy. 

There are five main types of psychotropic medications: antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, stimulants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers.

Antidepressants are used to treat depression. There are many different types of antidepressants. Some types are less frequently used than others but may work for you in consultation with your doctor. The most common antidepressants are:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which steadily increase the amount of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a powerful neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, bowel movements, sleep, blood clotting, and more. 
  • Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which gradually increase the amount of norepinephrine in your brain. Norepinephrine makes you feel awake and alert.
  • Bupropion, which promotes important brain activity and can be used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or to help people quit smoking. 

Side effects of antidepressants include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Weight gain
  • Sexual problems
  • Tremors
  • Dry mouth 

Anti-anxiety medications treat an array of anxiety disorders. These medications can be used to treat panic attacks, phobias, generalized anxiety, and various anxiety-related symptoms. 

Anti-anxiety medications include beta-blockers that help treat the physical symptoms of anxiety, including increased heartbeat, nausea, sweating, and trembling.

Because they typically cause drowsiness, some tranquilizers and sleep medications are also used to treat anxiety and insomnia. These tend to be prescribed for only a short time to prevent dependency

Potential side effects of anti-anxiety medications include:

  • Nausea
  • Blurry vision
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Nightmares

Stimulants help manage unorganized behavior. They accomplish this by improving concentration and having a calming effect. Stimulants are often prescribed for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Some side effects of stimulants include:

  • Insomnia
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss 

Antipsychotics help manage psychosis. Psychosis describes multiple conditions that affect the mind. They are often indicated by the person becoming separated from their reality and experiencing delusions or hallucinations. 

Antipsychotics can help people with psychosis think more clearly, feel calmer, sleep better, and communicate more effectively. 

Antipsychotics can be used to treat:

Some side effects of antipsychotics include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Upset stomach
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight gain 

Mood stabilizers help regulate extreme emotions. This doesn’t mean they don’t let you feel all the good that life has to offer. They simply help you manage your range of emotions. Mood stabilizers are primarily used to treat bipolar disorder and extreme mood swings. 

Some side effects of mood stabilizers include:

  • Upset stomach
  • Drowsiness
  • Weight gain
  • Dizziness
  • Tremors
  • Blurry vision
  • Confusion 

As with any medication, taking extra cautions with psychotropic drugs can help prevent unnecessary complications. 

  • Avoid alcohol and illicit drugs when taking psychotropic medications. Certain combinations can be dangerous.
  • Use caution when driving or operating machinery if your medications cause fatigue or drowsiness.
  • Women who are pregnant, breast-feeding, or may become pregnant should talk to their doctor about possible complications with their medications.
  • Don’t suddenly stop taking your medications. This can make you feel ill and cause severe side effects.
  • If you experience adverse allergic reactions such as fever, rashes, or similar side effects, contact your doctor as soon as possible. 

Older adults. Older adults tend to take more medications and have a higher risk of having negative drug interactions, missing a dose, or overdosing. They also tend to be more sensitive to medications, so proper dosage and frequency are crucial to managing risks.