Why Medication Alone Isn’t Enough to Treat Your Anxiety

Upset person covers face with hand, leaning to one side, sitting at kitchen tableMedication can be an effective tool in treating anxiety symptoms. In some cases, for some people, one small pill can lead to a great deal of relief. Especially for people who feel too busy to invest in psychotherapy, this can be an attractive strategy. Why go to therapy when you can get a prescription from your doctor and just move on with your life?

If only it were so simple. Many people mistakenly believe they can get all the help they need from medication. Here’s why they will likely be disappointed:

1. Medication is not effective for everyone, and some research shows a combination of medication and therapy is the most effective treatment for anxiety.

To begin with, not everybody experiences significant relief from medication. More often, medication only takes the edge off anxiety symptoms. For each person who experiences a dramatic response to anti-anxiety medication, there are many others who experience, at best, partial relief. It is common for people to try one medication after another, looking for what they hope will be a magic cure. But for most people, this is not a reasonable goal.

In many situations, medication is only partially effective and therapy is needed for management or recovery. Much research supports this premise. For example, results of one study showed medication alone is less effective in treating individuals with panic than medication combined with therapy. Other studies have shown similar results for generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and other anxiety conditions.

2. Many people develop a tolerance to anti-anxiety medication and need more and more of it over time for it to remain effective.

Not only is medication often not effective, but over time, many people gain a tolerance to the initial dose prescribed by their doctor. They find they have to ask for a higher and higher dose to gain the same level of relief. For some anti-anxiety medications, this can lead to a risk of addiction.

For example, many doctors prescribe a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines for anxiety. These include medications such as Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan, among many others. This class of drugs can have a speedy and significant effect on anxiety symptoms, but it is also highly addictive. It is important to be aware of this risk and take precautions. Individuals who utilize therapy often learn how to control some of their anxiety on their own, which means they may not need to increase their medication dose over time.

3. Medication can come with difficult side effects and, at times, cause more harm. Therapy, on the other hand, is extremely low-risk.

Medication comes with the risk of various side effects. There is no way to tell if you will have side effects from a medication until you try it, and for some people, the negative side effects can negate any relief they experience from their symptoms. On the other hand, therapy for anxiety is incredibly low-risk, while the benefits can extend well beyond addressing anxiety symptoms.

4. Taking medication on its own may numb the emotional and mental pain of anxiety in such a way that the underlying issues never get addressed.

Perhaps at this point you are thinking none of this applies to you. Medication has relieved all of your symptoms, caused no side effects, and you have no concerns related to addiction. With just medication, you feel able to proceed with life as normal. Even if this is the case, you may be surprised that this doesn’t necessarily mean medication on its own is the best choice for you. Here’s why.

When difficult symptoms are removed, this can take away any motivation to deal with underlying issues that may be causing the symptoms. Medication can lead to avoidance and failure to deal with the root of your concerns. For example, let’s say you feel anxious around a difficult and toxic family member. You take medication and your anxiety goes away. But now that the symptoms are gone, you don’t feel like working on the relationship. You don’t feel motivated to understand why the relationship caused you anxiety, your role in the relationship struggles, or how you can improve the relationship for both of you. When medication takes away painful symptoms, it can sometimes also have the negative effect of impeding growth.

Perhaps the most important fact to remember is medication—when effective—covers only symptoms. It doesn’t lead to growth, change, lasting improvement, or a cure. As soon as you stop taking the medication, your anxiety will likely come right back. Are you ready to dig a little deeper and find real change?

How a Trained Therapist Can Help You with Your Anxiety

A trained therapist can help you with your anxiety in ways medication can’t. While medication covers symptoms, therapy leads to self-awareness, growth, and potential recovery.

1. A therapist can help you identify the root of your anxiety.

If you can figure out the cause of your anxiety, you will be better equipped to recover from your anxiety. Often, there are deeper reasons behind why you feel the way you feel.

Your anxiety may stem from childhood experiences, traumatic events in your past, bad habits you are unaware of, or deeper questions about life that we all face at one point or another. Many of our fears in life arise when we are forced to face the reality of suffering and death, the pain of isolation or loneliness, or the despair that comes when we encounter situations that feel hopeless.

You won’t know the root of your anxiety until you are ready to talk about it honestly and in detail. A therapist knows the right questions to ask to help you determine what triggers your anxiety and how your anxiety started in the first place. Determining these things can be the beginning of your road to true recovery.

If you are taking medication for your anxiety, this is not a bad thing by any means. Medication helps many people. Therapists generally don’t discourage people from taking prescriptions; we simply help them consider how to be smart about it and how to utilize medication within the context of therapy.

2. A therapist can help you find your own inherent strengths and believe in your own ability to work toward change.

One of the potential problems with anti-anxiety medication is it can become a crutch. Often, medication is helpful at the beginning of treatment, but over time, you can begin to over-rely on your prescription when you actually have the tools you need to live without it. Over time, you may begin to lose confidence in yourself. You may feel incapable of making good decisions and feel unequipped to move forward in life.

Utilizing therapy on top of medication helps you take responsibility for your life, actions, and future. With just medication, you are leaving yourself dependent on something outside of yourself to make progress. Therapy forces you to find your own solutions and answers. Relying on yourself in this way can build great confidence and lead to a lot of growth.

3. A therapist can help you discover meaning in life and work toward finding your best self.

You are so much more than your anxiety. Yes, at the beginning, the purpose of therapy is to help you learn how to manage your anxiety. But once you have discovered the cause of your anxiety and gained some control over your symptoms, therapy can become a launching pad for an even greater level of growth.

As you come to counseling week after week with the goal of understanding yourself better, you will begin to realize all you are capable of. You will begin to build a picture of what life would look like if you took the time to find the best version of yourself.

At its best, therapy moves beyond helping you with your problems to helping you find your greatest potential. Perhaps anxiety has been holding you back from who you want to be. Once you learn how to manage your anxiety, therapy can become the place where you build a greater vision for the life you want to live and the person you want to become.

Your Best Option: Medication Combined with Therapy

If you are taking medication for your anxiety, this is not a bad thing by any means. Medication helps many people. Therapists generally don’t discourage people from taking prescriptions; we simply help them consider how to be smart about it and how to utilize medication within the context of therapy.

Many therapists believe medication combined with therapy is your best option. In my practice, we utilize a multicultural anxiety treatment approach in which we assess the cause of your anxiety; come up with an individualized plan based on your needs; and often include close family members in your recovery process. We have seen this approach work for many people, and there’s no reason to think it can’t help you as well.

References:

  1. Mitchell, C. G. (1999). Treating anxiety in a managed care setting: A controlled comparison of medication alone versus medication plus cognitive-behavioral group therapy. Research on Social Work Practice, 9(2), 188-200.
  2. Zwanzger, P., Diemer, J., & Jabs, B. (2009). Comparison of combined psycho- and pharmacotherapy with monotherapy in anxiety disorders: Controversial viewpoints and clinical perspectives. Journal of Neural Transmission, 116(6), 759-65.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sam Nabil, MA, LPC, therapist in Blue Ash, Ohio

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 7 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Constance

    Constance

    July 27th, 2017 at 10:21 AM

    Ugh I really have a problem when everyone thinks that popping a pill is the natural solution to anything this ails them. I would much rather try some more natural alternatives, and then maybe add the medication after that. I just think that there are other options out there if we are willing to try them.

  • Thaddeus

    Thaddeus

    July 28th, 2017 at 7:03 AM

    Wouldn’t you already be seeing someone who is prescribing the medication?
    Wouldn’t this more than likely be a psychiatrist or licensed therapist? Or do you think that most people would go to separate providers if medication and therapy were both a part of their game plan?

  • Ellie

    Ellie

    July 29th, 2017 at 2:40 PM

    Really being too busy just can’t cut it anymore, especially if you have a serious mental health issue that requires being dealt with. Above all else you need to be willing to take the time and care for yourself… no one else will do that for you.

  • Huck

    Huck

    July 31st, 2017 at 12:11 PM

    When my GP just gave me a prescription and told me to start taking that without ever really talking to me about the things causing me a great deal of anxiety that was when I knew that this was not going to be the right path for me to take in terms of healing. It did nothing to help address the causes and it did nothing to help with the things that caused me greater anxiety every single day. I took it upon myself to seek out a therapist that I could talk to, who started helping me map out a path to recovery that did not only include medication alone.

  • francine

    francine

    August 6th, 2017 at 2:49 PM

    I have been feeling for a while like my medication and dose wasn’t working for me as w ell anymore but I really did not know that I could have developed a tolerance for it in the same way that you can other drugs.
    I will definitely be bringing this up at my next appointment.

  • dave

    dave

    March 25th, 2019 at 1:36 PM

    I have had some issues growing up, and I seemed to cope. This last year, I switched jobs, moved, and it started getting a bit worse, my dr put me on paxil. Then it hit, I put my mom In hospice and she passed after 2 months of slowly dying and a week after the funeral, I was behind a head on collision and stayed with the lady as she took her last breath. About a week later I had a panic attack and the anxiety was through the roof. My dr put me on buspirone and it helped for a bit, but now the anxiety (fast heart rate, feeling nervous, stomach issues etc) all are back at times. Should I change meds or see someone? I’m 55 and otherwise in good health, and finanacial stable, but still I feel this way. My family has anxiety/depression Any suggestions would help.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    March 25th, 2019 at 2:02 PM

    Dear Dave,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. If you need help finding a therapist, you are welcome to call us. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy Team

Leave a Reply

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.