Living with stress can take the joy out of life, strain your relationships and even affect your career. Worse, it does severe damage to your general health and can lead to depression and other mental illnesses.
For all these reasons, it’s important to fight stress as quickly and effectively as possible. With that in mind then, should you consider using medications?
Medication for Stress
There are a number of different types of medications for stress and if you consult with your doctor or therapist about serious, chronic stress then they may well recommend one of these drugs.
Usually, medications will only be advised in serious circumstances. Those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, who are going through a divorce, or who are struggling with illness may all be encouraged to try medications.
But what medications are available for stress and how do they work? Here are a few examples:
Barbiturates are a class of drug that work by increasing the action of GABA (gamma aminobutryic acid) in the brain.
The reason this is effective is that GABA is an ‘inhibitory’ neurotransmitter. In other words, it is a substance used in the brain to ‘quieten’ thoughts and reduce mental activity. This substance plays a big role in helping us sleep and when used as a medication for stress it can help to reduce negative racing thoughts.
Likewise, benzodiazepines are very similar to barbiturates, once again working by increasing the potency of GABA in the brain.
More often used as antidepressants, SRIs are ‘serotonin reuptake inhibitors’ and work by preventing the brain from removing serotonin via transporters. This then results in there being more free serotonin in the brain to do its thing, which is important because serotonin is a ‘feel good neurotransmitter’ that works as a natural antidepressant and which can combat stress.
Should You Use Medication for Stress?
These are just a few examples of some classes of medications for stress. There are in fact many more, which all work in slightly different ways.
The question then is, should you be using medications such as these to combat stress symptoms, or are there better ways?
Medication for stress certainly has its place. For those struggling with very severe symptoms, who are perhaps finding it hard to function normally or who are at risk of becoming ill, medication is a viable and recommended option.
Even in these scenarios though, medication should be a last resort and should be used only to combat symptoms in the short term while a more permanent solution is found.
Note that medication only combats the symptoms and does not address the root cause. It is actually uncertain whether negative neurotransmitters lead to stressful thoughts or if the reverse is true but either way, temporarily changing the levels of neurochemicals is unlikely to present a permanent fix for negative thought patterns of an ongoing feeling of anxiety.
Stress Medication Side Effects
Moreover, pharmaceutical drugs can have a number of side effects and associated risks.
Use of barbiturates for instance can cause confusion and memory problems in the short term, may lead to lethargy and tiredness and can even make patients difficult to wake from sleeping.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires warnings on all SRIs (and similar ‘SNRIs’) stating that they can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
A more general concern meanwhile is the risk of ‘tolerance’ and ‘dependence’. These can occur as a result of changes in the brain of the user which leads them to become dependent on the substances in order to function normally.
What Is Tolerance and Dependence?
Say someone were to use benzodiazepines that would reduce the effect of GABA transporters – the mechanisms in the brain used to remove GABA that isn’t needed. This would cause the neuronal inhibition in the short term, helping the user to feel calm and relaxed.
At the same time though, it would also mean that the brain would register increased amounts of free GABA. As a result, it might respond by producing less GABA naturally, or by reducing the number of GABA receptors needed for the brain to utilize the neurochemical.
Eventually, this could lead to structural changes in the brain that cause it to have a constant deficit of GABA. Now when the patient uses benzodiazepines, they will need to use higher doses in order to feel the same effects.
Thus they become dependent because they have permanently low GABA levels otherwise (and experience withdrawal symptoms) and they develop tolerance because they need more benzodiazepines to have any effect.
This can ultimately lead to abuse and more severe stress symptoms and it still won’t have addressed the underlying causes of the stress.
Other Treatments for Stress
But if stress medication isn’t recommended, except as a short-term solution in severe cases, what should you do to combat stress instead?
One option is to look at types of therapy such as CBT. CBT is ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’, which is a powerful tool that teaches the user how to analyze the contents of their own thoughts and how to replace them with more positive content which will help to reduce stressful ruminations. At the same time, they will learn breathing techniques, meditation, journaling and other strategies for fighting stress in the long and short term.
More strategies can also be useful, whether that’s taking up a hobby or just talking through your stress with friends. Different people react to stress in different ways and respond better to different stress management techniques.
Addressing the various lifestyle factors that might be contributing to feelings of stress is also important and can be very effective. This may mean changing careers, it might mean ending a destructive relationship, or it could involve just taking a break to go on holiday for a while.
Finally, make sure that you are looking after your health generally. Get plenty of sleep, combat any colds or infections and maintain a healthy diet and exercise regime. All these things can help prepare your body to much better combat the effects of stress and can make you feel far more energetic and positive no matter what life throws at you.
Overall, steer away from medications wherever possible and consider it very much a last resort!