Difference between Antidepressants and Anti-anxiety Medication

Updated on February 14, 2018

Depression and anxiety are disorders that millions of people suffer from on a daily basis. Both are debilitating and affect many aspects of one’s life, but can be treated and mitigated through therapy and medication. This article will explain the difference between anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants.


While both antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are effective in treating the respective disorders they are usually prescribed for, it is important to note that these medications should only be taken as prescribed, and one should talk to their doctor to be aware of all possible risks before taking them. Additionally, medication is sometimes not effective enough alone to treat depression and anxiety. If taking medication, it is a good idea to do so in conjunction with therapy and relevant lifestyle changes such as exercise.

Antidepressants are medications meant to treat depression. There are a variety of antidepressants, such as:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibits (SNRIs)
  • Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs)
  • Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs)
  • Herbal treatments such as St. John’s Wort

Antidepressants are used to treat depression, dysthymia, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. How antidepressants treat depression has to do with neurochemistry. The causes of depression in people is still unclear, but what is known is that sufferers of depression have reduced levels of certain neurotransmitters, chemicals in the brain that carry information across nerve gaps. Once the information is carried, the neurotransmitter is absorbed into the nerve cell, a process which is known as reuptake. The two neurotransmitters that people with depression have in lower amounts are serotonin and noradrenaline. Antidepressants either encourage the production of these neurotransmitters, or inhibit their reuptake. Antidepressants must be taken carefully and only after being prescribed by a doctor or psychiatrist. Side effects of antidepressants can include vomiting or nausea, weight loss or weight gain, sexual dysfunction, anxiety, and headaches. Commonly prescribed antidepressants include Prozac, Zoloft, and Effexor.

Antianxiety medications are medications meant for treating anxiety disorders. Anxiety is often defined by a high amount of neural activity, and most anti-anxiety medications are sedatives and depressants (i.e. drugs that limit neural activity, rather than drugs that promote depression).  Anti-anxiety medications are also called anxiolytic or anti-panic medications. Many anxiolytic medications are classified as minor tranquilizers. Antianxiety medications include:

  • Barbiturates (rarely prescribed anymore)
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Beta blockers
  • SSRIs

Barbiturates are medications that act as sedatives and have anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects. Though once prescribed regularly, the high risk of abuse and addiction linked with barbiturate use has rendered them mostly obsolete, although they are sometimes used to treat severe insomnia.

Benzodiazepines are more commonly prescribed for anxiety nowadays. They act as sedatives and depressants, and some frequently prescribed benzodiazepines are alprazolam (usually called Xanax), lorazepam (usually called Ativan), and diazepam (usually called Valium).

Beta blockers, though not officially prescribed, have been found to sometimes be effective at treating anxiety.

SSRIs, usually prescribed for depression, can be effective in treating anxiety at higher doses.

Side effects of anti-anxiety medications include drowsiness, slurred speech, nausea, and impaired thinking, among others.

Comparison chart

AntidepressantsAntianxiety Medication
Primarily treat depression.Primarily treat anxiety.
Work via neurotransmitter production or reuptake inhibition.Work via decreasing neural activity.

Antidepressants vs Anti-anxiety Medication

What is the difference between Antidepressants and Anti-anxiety Medications? There are a few differences:
Anxiety and depression are different disorders, though they do have some similarities. Some researchers actually believe that both are different manifestations of the same disorder, though this has not been proven and is still being researched. As a result, some anti-anxiety medications are also antidepressants, and vice versa.

Tranquilizers most commonly prescribed as anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, are primarily prescribed for anti-anxiety, and antidepressants such as SSRIs are primarily prescribed for depression. With that said, there is crossover between the two.

Additionally, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications function differently. Antianxiety medications that are classified as tranquilizers are designed mainly to reduce neural activity, and to calm someone down when they are anxious, whereas antidepressants mainly affect neurotransmitters in the brain. With that said, many medications are prescribed that treat both depression and anxiety.

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