One of the most common reasons for doctor visits these days is anxiety, or “stress.” Whatever one chooses to call it, we have all felt the feeling of being overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, a sense of dread, fear, hyperventilation, sweaty palms before going into a meeting. For most of us, most of the time, this is a fleeting, occasional problem. For some of us, it is a frequent, even omnipresent issue. This is directed at both groups, but it will surely be of greater value to the chronically stressed.

Over the years, medications aimed at helping patients manage stress have been very popular. In the 1970’s, Valium was for a time such a commonly prescribed drug that it became a cliché, and was almost a featured character in some TV sitcoms and movies. Even before that, in the 1960’s, medications such as Miltown, Soma and Vistaril were often prescribed for the same problem: stress or anxiety. In the 1980’s, things changed dramatically, with the development of the SSRI category of drugs – the “serotonin reuptake inhibitors.” These drugs, beginning with Prozac, quickly became the most prescribed drugs in America and Europe, like Valium before them, becoming the subject of popular books and movies, and achieving cultural icon status.

How much has changed, twenty-some years later? Not much, really. The names are new – Celexa, Lexapro and Zoloft, to name a few – but the concept is the same. In 2007, in the US alone, there were over 72 Million prescriptions of just those three medications, alone. Some of those prescriptions were for depression treatment, which is a different topic, and one I hope to cover in a different article, very soon. The fact is, these drugs are being prescribed to treat anxiety, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and other, similar, stress related diagnoses.

Along with the popularity of these new, pharmacological treatments for stress-related illnesses has come a backlash among patients who have found the new drugs to be unacceptable for various reasons. Among the reasons reported for discontinuation of the newer, anti-anxiety medications are: lack of efficacy (“they just don’t work for me”), potential for serious side effects when they are stopped (now renemed “discontinuation syndromes” rather than withdrawal), sexual dysfunction, insomnia, nightmares, dry mouth, undesired weight loss or gain. In my own experience with patients, many seem to report that these medications have been a Godsend, helping when nothing else would, but just as many seem to feel that the side effects – the “down side” – just wasn’t worth it; they wanted a natural alternative that really worked.

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