Do Stress-Relieving Drugs Actually Help?

Stress. We all feel it. With such a broad term, it’s one of those responses that virtually everyone experiences in varying degrees at one point or another. But while stress is a universal experience, dealing with it varies from person to person. Unfortunately, using various drugs is one way to deal with stress, whether those substances are prescription or illicit. But do these stress-relieving drugs actually help? Here’s a reasonable answer.

What Is Stress?

What is a good medical definition of stress? Perhaps the simplest definition for stress is our body’s response to threats, danger, or pressure, which can vary based on the circumstances we find ourselves in. According to Medical News Today, common symptoms of stress can range from diarrhea to heart palpitations and even headaches. Again, it’s important to “stress” that people can experience stress in various ways depending on the situation, so there is no singular symptom. This means that some situations can prove to be more or less stressful from person to person since things like our genetics and social and economic circumstances can intensify stressful situations. 

At one point, nicotine was one of the most common substances for stress relief. This drug creates a sense of relaxation, which immediately decreases stress levels. However, the older examples of nicotine use in things like cigarettes and cigars have decreased in popularity, especially during the turn of the century when states began outlawing indoor smoking in public places. Today, newer generations seem to prefer nicotine in the form of vaping and e-cigarettes

But while nicotine is the stereotypical example of stress relief, it is much more common for people to pursue stress relief from other sources. This includes the transition from general experiences of stress to something more concrete, such as an anxiety disorder. Everyone can experience stress, but the condition does not necessarily mean the same thing as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress, but anxiety will typically go away on its own. For some people, however, anxiety becomes chronic and ongoing for months at a time to the point of interfering with their quality of life. This is when anxiety (and stress) become an anxiety disorder. 

How Do Stress-Relieving Drugs Work?

There are two popular options for dealing with stress in the form of an anxiety disorder: benzodiazepines and antidepressants. These drugs deal with the common occurrence of stress in different ways. Here’s how they compare:

Benzodiazepines include a range medications, including short- and long-acting drugs, depending on which is best for each individual. While doctors prescribe benzos for a wide range of symptoms, anxiety treatment is the most popular example of using benzos. The medications interact with the gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter, relaxing the muscles and producing feelings of euphoria. 

Antidepressants are also used to treat anxiety symptoms, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Drugs belonging to the SSRIs class include popular brands such as Lexapro, Prozac, and Zoloft. Rather than interacting with the GABA neurotransmitter like benzos, these drugs increase serotonin levels to enhance core functions like mood, sex drive, memory, sleep, and appetite. 

If both drugs deal with the common occurrence of stress, why the need for both? As mentioned earlier, stress can vary from person to person, both in circumstances and intensity. This also means the kind of symptoms (appetite, sleeping, depression, etc.) will also vary from person to person, making one drug a better option than the other. But the big question that must be answered is, “do these drugs actually help?”

Short-Term Gain

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is, essentially, it depends. With both benzos and antidepressants, the short-term gain certainly includes stress relief. If someone is dealing with stress to the point of losing their quality of life, they will certainly find help in the use of these drugs. However, the problem with any medically dependent solution is the fact that benzos and antidepressants are not meant for long-term use. 

However, long-term use of these drugs comes with a wide range of dangers. For one, benzos like Xanax list a vast increase in dependency and abuse when using the drug long-term, and the duration for long-term use is listed as “more than 12 weeks.” Compare this to the vast majority of benzo users who renew their prescription year after year. Xanax’s warning label also includes long-term use as an increased risk of seizures, as well as the chilling statement: “It is not known if Xanax is safe and effective when used to treat anxiety disorder for longer than 4 months.” The same four-month limit for safe use is also included in the antidepressant drug Zoloft, nor is there dedicated evidence from any studies to evaluate the “long-term effects of Zoloft,” particularly in pediatric patients. These warnings and disclaimers regularly go unnoticed by almost everyone, but they tell a compelling story: stress can only be dealt with safely by medical treatment in the short term. 

When Stress Comes Back to Bite

Not only do benzos and antidepressants require caution, but these drugs also show withdrawal and addiction signs that intensify the levels of stress that led users to consume these drugs in the first place. In other words, when we turn to medications to deal with stress, anything more than short-term use will greatly increase the risk of abuse and addiction, along with the symptoms that accompany those things: increased stress

It is an unfortunate and ironic thing to turn to drugs for stress relief only to find these drugs end up betraying us and making us more stressed out than we were, to begin with. It is also unfortunate that many people have no idea of the dangers of these drugs since they are repeatedly prescribed and renewed for patients year after year, well beyond the recommended length of use provided on the drug labels. 

If you or someone you know is dealing with the vicious cycle of stress brought on by these drugs, it is important to seek professional help immediately.