woman taking antidepressants

Anxiety is a natural part of being human. Most of us feel anxious to some degree at some point during our lives. But for some people, anxiety can be all-encompassing and overwhelming, notes the American Psychological Association. People struggling with an anxiety disorder often experience recurring and intrusive thoughts. Anxiety can even affect them physically and hinder their ability to cope with challenging situations and day-to-day responsibilities.

There’s been an increase in the number of people taking prescription medication for anxiety, reports the British Journal of General Practice, particularly among those under the age of 25. For these individuals, anti-anxiety medication (also referred to as anxiolytics) may feel like a sigh of relief. It can help them keep their heads above water in order to function and get through difficult moments that might otherwise feel unbearable. While drugs won’t cure anxiety, they can help some people manage and ease its symptoms.

There are various types of medications available for people with anxiety, ranging from antidepressants to benzodiazepines to beta blockers. Despite their uplifting effects on mood, some drugs can have a less desirable impact on your physical and mental health in the long term. Since each person is different, anti-anxiety medication affects each individual differently. Whether you decide to take the pharmacological or therapeutic route, it’s important to do a bit of research and find an approach that’s right for you. Here are some things that go on in your body when you swallow that anxiety-busting pill.

Your heart rate and breathing slow down

fitness tracker heart rate

One of the ways in which benzodiazepines help relieve anxiety is by slowing down your breathing and heart rate (via Journal of the American Heart Association). They have a sedating effect on your central nervous system, which controls most of your bodily functions, including respiration and heart rate.

Benzodiazepines work by increasing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) –- known as the brain’s "calming" neurotransmitter (via Frontiers in Pharmacology). GABA blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain. This is why benzos generally have hypnotic and amnesia-inducing effects (via Journal of the American Heart Association). They can make you feel relaxed and drowsy, and are often used to treat insomnia, which is described as "hyperarousal" of the central nervous system.

Excessive use of benzodiazepines, however, can slow down vital functions like respiration to the point where your muscles and organs are not able to get enough oxygen. This can lead to all sorts of life-threatening complications such as heart failure, and it can even result in cardiac death.

Your heart rate may soar

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In contrast to their usual depressant effects, benzodiazepines can also elevate your heart rate. According to a study published in Pharmacology, it’s not uncommon for benzodiazepine users to have their heart rate shoot up both during the night and in the early morning hours. This might explain why benzos can provide short-term relief for anxiety and insomnia, but they often have paradoxical effects of worsening both mood and sleep in the long-term (via Journal of Clinical Medicine).

A spike in anxiety and sleeplessness are common withdrawal symptoms in people who have been using benzodiazepines chronically, also known as a "rebound effect." When someone abruptly stops taking benzodiazepines after a long period of time, their central nervous system is no longer being suppressed. So it becomes over excited as it attempts to restore balance when the inhibition is suddenly taken away. This can lead to an increase in heart rate, especially if the drug was previously taken in high doses. Some people may notice a rise in impulsivity, irritability, and agitation, while a few may even experience paranoia, panic attacks, and hallucinations.

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