Can Taking An SSRI For Anxiety Help?

By: Michael Puskar

Updated November 04, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell

Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention topics that include prescription medication, abuse of medication, and addiction. The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have.

Many people experience anxiety, and while therapies and coping methods are most effective, sometimes medication can make it more manageable. SSRIs were introduced in the 1980s, primarily to deal with depression. Their use has steadily skyrocketed as they are effective for a variety of conditions. The term "SSRI" stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, and these drugs work by stopping the neurotransmitter serotonin from being reabsorbed by the body. Serotonin is used to transfer brain messages between the body's nerves and is strongly linked to mood.

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SSRIs help clarify messages between neurons, which can help reduce anxiety. Serotonin is released across the synapse (the space between neurons) and absorbed by the next message. If there is not enough serotonin, only part of the information gets across, and the rest is lost, meaning that it is not interpreted or misinterpreted. When there is enough serotonin available, the body can better understand situations, making it less likely to trigger a false "fight or flight" response. It takes approximately 4-6 weeks for SSRI medications to be fully effective.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response within the body, and it's also one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. When we experience danger, our senses become hyper-aware to help us survive. The problem is that most of us rarely experience a survival situation these days, and our anxiety response becomes confused. In stressful events, or even ones that are not, our bodies perceive danger and react accordingly. For example, nervousness or anxiety about making speeches or undergoing surgery has some rationality, while having a panic attack about the drugstore being out of toothpaste does not. Having a specific fear about a thing or activity may not affect your daily life, but it's important to get treatment if your life is being affected by anxiety. (It's important to note that if you experience anxiety that might not be "rational," your feelings are valid. However, when this anxiety begins to affect your daily life, it's a sign that you may benefit from speaking to a therapist.)ß


Anxiety disorders do not simply "go away" and may even get worse without treatment. There are seven diagnosable anxiety disorders divided into three types and many more connected to obsessive behaviors, trauma, and substance use issues. Not all of them will be suitable for SSRI medications, so it's important to get an expert's perspective before considering medication.

There are many anxiety quizzes available online to give you a basic understanding of anxiety disorders. Distinguishing an anxiety disorder means that your stress is extreme, exaggerated, and often unrealistic regarding what should be an ordinary event.

If you're experiencing anxiety symptoms or encountering situations where your stress affects your ability to function, it's essential to seek help.

Benefits of SSRIs for Anxiety

While patients may see a temporary worsening of symptoms or flu-like symptoms at first, this is limited and quickly passes. People taking SSRIs often do not have the dependency risks of patients taking benzodiazepines, and unlike other anxiety medications, there's no side effect of potential weight gain. SSRIs in general also tend to have fewer side effects.

Commonly Prescribed SSRIs for Anxiety

  • Fluoxetine. This is used for depression and is the original SSRI, but it can be effective for social anxiety, OCD, generalized anxiety, and panic disorders. Research shows that it is well-tolerated and may also be useful for treating PTSD. The main issue with Fluoxetine is that it can cause insomnia and may even increase anxiety in some patients.
  • Sertraline. Like Fluoxetine, Sertraline has a well-documented side effect of causing nervousness and agitation, making anxiety worse. Usually, this is started as a low dose that gradually increases until the effects are seen, or side effects are pronounced, and then scaled back. It also causes insomnia and may upset the digestive system.
  • Paroxetine. Used mainly for panic disorders and social anxiety, it has limited benefits for PTSD, OCD, and depression. It can cause nausea, weight gain, and sleepiness.
  • Citalopram. Citalopram is prescribed for the same conditions as other SSRI medications, but the digestive system side effects are more pronounced. However, unlike other SSRIs, it has no sleep effects and should not be taken with alcohol as this can cause depression in the respiratory system.

Is SSRIs Effective?

Until recently, it was common to prescribe SSRI medications for anxiety, but some research shows that the average improvement is so slight that it almost matched placebos in trials. A large-scale study by Wayne State University published early in 2018 focused specifically on anxiety, whereas previous studies focused on depression with anxiety, looking at both disorders concurrently. The benefits of SSRIs were less pronounced than most of the side effects, meaning that SSRI medications might not be the best first choice for treating anxiety.

Other studies, however, such as this one, have found some significant symptom improvement through higher doses of SSRIs. So, it may be a viable option for many people experiencing high anxiety levels in their day-to-day lives.

What Are Other Treatment Options For Anxiety?

Many things can cause anxiety but being able to calm your anxious mind is one of the easiest ways to cope. Meditation and grounding exercises are ideal because they don't require any special training or cost. Mindfulness meditation has been shown through various studies to be extremely effective in treating mood and anxiety disorders. Yoga may also help for the same reason, as it is meditative.

Research suggests that writing or journaling can also treat anxiety by giving individuals a way to think through their issues. The problem or danger is better understood by putting thoughts onto paper, so the brain feels less threatened and anxious. This doesn't work for all types of anxiety, but it has shown to be effective for generalized anxiety disorder.

Cognitive-behavioral therapies, like exposure therapy, are especially effective. This type of treatment exposes a patient to the cause of their anxiety is controlled conditions and under the supervision of a therapist so that they become less sensitive over time. This should not be done without a trained therapist.

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Suppose you are looking for a therapist who is trained and experienced in helping people overcome anxiety. In that case, BetterHelp offers online sessions, which are convenient and usually more affordable than in-person meetings. With online therapy platforms, you can access the help you need from the comfort and safety of your own home. Many individuals who have experienced anxiety prefer online therapy (compared to face-to-face therapy) because online therapy removes the need to drive through traffic or sit in a waiting room net to strangers.

BetterHelp gives you access to licensed and professional counselors and therapists who can give you the skills to cope with anxiety, reducing its burden on your life. Read some of the following reviews to see how others have benefited from BetterHelp's services.

Counselor Reviews

"I signed up for BetterHelp at a time where I felt my lowest. I was matched with Lenora, and she has been nothing but wonderful. She has helped me learn how to control my emotions and identify when I risk losing control. She always seemed to care about my feelings and well being genuine. Because of her, I feel more confident and in control of my life. I am truly so grateful that I was matched with her as my counselor."

"Jennifer has helped me learn how to manage my anxiety so that I can enjoy life the way I used to. She always makes time when my schedule doesn't line up with hers. And she never makes me feel like I'm a burden to her."


Using SSRIs for anxiety is a common solution, but they might not be the best first approach. Talk with your healthcare provider about alternatives and other possible medications that may work better for you. Living a fulfilling life free of anxiety is not only possible but likely, with the right tools and help. Take the first step today.

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