Can Taking An SSRI For Anxiety Help?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While engaging in therapy and learning healthy coping methods are often effective treatments for anxiety, sometimes medication like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help make the symptoms more manageable, too. SSRIs were introduced in the 1980s primarily to treat symptoms of depression. Their use has steadily risen since then, as research has indicated that they may be effective for a variety of other conditions too. Read on to find out how they can be used for individuals experiencing anxiety, their potential side effects, and other treatment options to consider.

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What are SSRIs?

First, let’s begin by defining what SSRIs are. This acronym stands for ‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.’ Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that transfers brain messages between the body’s nerves, and it’s also linked to mood. If there is not enough serotonin, only part of the information in a message may be transmitted, and the rest may not be interpreted or could be misinterpreted. 

When enough serotonin is available, the body may better understand and process situations because these brain messages are clarified, making it less likely to trigger a false "fight or flight" response. SSRIs may help make more serotonin available because they stop the extra from being reabsorbed—prohibiting serotonin reuptake, in other words. Their effect doesn’t happen right away, however; it may take approximately four to six weeks for reuptake inhibitors like SSRIs to be fully effective.

What is anxiety?

When we perceive danger, we naturally become hyper-aware in order to have a better chance of surviving. While this mechanism used to apply to things like facing a dangerous animal in the earlier days of human history, it can now be triggered by what we perceive as danger in the modern world. For example, we might feel anxious and hyper-aware when it comes to undergoing surgery or skydiving. Since both of these could be potentially life-threatening, this response is considered rational in such cases. However, some people experience the same intensity of symptoms in non-threatening circumstances, such as when socializing or going to the grocery store—which is when an anxiety disorder may be at play. 

General anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health condition experienced by over six million Americans. It’s just one of several types of anxiety disorders but is thought to be the most common. One of the key symptoms is excessive, persistent worry that can feel uncontrollable. Since this and other symptoms can negatively impact a person’s life, functioning, and overall well-being, it’s generally recommended that people experiencing it seek the advice of a mental health care provider. Tools like online anxiety quizzes may help you understand your symptoms, but they are not a replacement for seeking professional help for symptoms of this or any disorder.


Potential side effects of SSRIs for anxiety

Note that SSRIs are typically not intended to be taken on their own. Instead, the aim is generally to use them to help an individual manage their symptoms enough so that they can engage in other types of treatment too, such as therapy and lifestyle changes. Medication is not right for everyone, but it can be a helpful part of treatment in some scenarios when a doctor or psychiatrist believes it to be appropriate.

That said, some individuals are hesitant to take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors because they're concerned about side effects. Side effects may be temporary or long term, and they can vary based on the specific medication and from person to person. For many individuals, the benefits outweigh the side effects, but it’s generally a personal choice that should be made alongside the advice of a healthcare professional.

Some common side effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may include the following: 

  • Headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Dry mouth
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness, agitation, or restlessness
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Reduced sexual desire, erectile dysfunction, or difficulty reaching orgasm

Are SSRIs effective?

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors were initially designed to treat depression, but studies suggest that they may effectively help treat many types of anxiety as well. However, other research suggests that SSRIs aren't as effective for treating anxiety as they may be for other conditions. For instance, a study conducted on one particular type of SSRI indicates that it may “provide only a modest advantage over placebo in treatment of anxiety and depression."

Patient needs and situations are diverse, which is why using any medication requires an experienced, licensed professional's supervision. For some, medications are highly effective, and for others, they're not very effective at all or cause more side effects than benefits. Furthermore, a person may respond differently to different medications in the broad selection of available SSRIs. You can consult your primary care doctor or therapist about whether selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors may be helpful for you.

What are other treatment options for anxiety?

Learning healthy coping mechanisms is another common recommendation for those experiencing symptoms of anxiety. One example is mindfulness meditation. Recent research suggests that incorporating this regular practice could help reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety—potentially even as effectively as some medications.

Adjusting certain lifestyle factors could also help mitigate symptoms of a mental health condition like anxiety, particularly in conjunction with other treatments. For example, multiple studies indicate that getting regular aerobic exercise could help reduce symptoms. There’s also evidence to suggest that eating a nutritious diet—especially one rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids—could decrease the severity of anxiety’s effects.

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Seeking therapy for anxiety

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also be a helpful treatment for anxiety in many cases. A cognitive behavioral therapist can help an individual learn to recognize and shift any distorted thought patterns that may be contributing to symptoms and develop healthy coping techniques for when they do arise. 

Some individuals—particularly those who routinely experience anxiety—may feel intimidated or uncertain about the prospect of meeting with a therapist in person to address their anxiety. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a viable alternative. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can meet with a licensed therapist virtually from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Research suggests online therapy can be as effective as in-person sessions in treating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other conditions.


If you experience feelings of anxiety that negatively impact your mental health and/or interfere with your daily life, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are one treatment option that may help. However, they’re not right for everyone, so it’s important that you speak with your doctor or psychiatrist if you’re considering them. Exercise, eating nutritious foods, practicing meditation, and seeking therapy may also be useful.

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