Can Benadryl Be Used for Anxiety?

Can you use Benadryl (diphenhydramine) for anxiety? If you are living with anxiety and don't like traditional medications or have not yet visited your doctor, you might wonder whether over-the-counter (OTC) medications like Benadryl might help you manage your symptoms.

But there are many questions: Are they safe? Do they work? What are the pros and cons? And, can you use them to supplement other treatments you might receive? This article considers each of these questions to help you sort through your options for treating anxiety with over-the-counter medication like Benadryl.

OTC Medications for Anxiety

First things first: You're probably wondering if over-the-counter medications even work when it comes to treating anxiety. In order to answer this question, let's first consider the different over-the-counter medications that you might use for anxiety because Benadryl is just one of many.

Antihistamines and Other Sedatives

Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl, are used to manage allergic reactions, but they can also cause sedation as a side effect. Because of this, diphenhydramine is in a lot of over-the-counter sleep aids. Some people take Benadryl for anxiety because of the calming side effects it can have. In fact, some doctors may even prescribe Benadryl for children and adolescents with anxiety disorders, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).

Benadryl takes about 15 to 30 minutes to start working and its peak effect occurs about 2 to 4 hours after taking it. An adult dose to obtain sedating effects is between 25 and 50 milligrams. However, these effects are less than you would experience with prescription sedatives such as benzodiazepines.

In addition to the sedating effects of antihistamines, other over-the-counter drugs can induce sedation and drowsiness, most notably those marketed as muscle relaxers or sleep medications.

Benadryl is not the only antihistamine that is sometimes used off-label for anxiety relief. Doctors may also sometimes prescribe Vistaril (hydroxyzine), an antihistamine that is similar to Benadryl, for the short-term treatment of anxiety.

Herbal Remedies

There are a number of herbal remedies that may provide some relief of symptoms of anxiety. Some of these include:

Herbal remedies can be found in the form of teas, sprays, pills, oils, or tinctures. Like other treatments for anxiety, herbal remedies can also have calming effects, but they are generally mild.

These herbal remedies are generally not strong enough to effectively treat acute anxiety symptoms. Herbal remedies are best used under a doctor's guidance to complement other first-line treatments for significant anxiety.

Painkillers

Various painkillers may act on parts of the brain involved in the experience of emotional pain. In fact, one study from the University of British Columbia concluded that over-the-counter medication such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) had an impact on emotional distress and anxiety triggers.

Vitamins and Minerals

Most people know that vitamins and minerals are important for physical health, but can taking them reduce anxiety? Unfortunately, unless you have a deficiency in a particular vitamin or mineral, it's unlikely that taking vitamin or mineral supplements will reduce anxiety symptoms. That being said, there is no harm in taking a daily multivitamin to support your overall health under the guidance of your doctor.

Safety of OTC Medications for Anxiety

The safety of using over-the-counter medication for anxiety generally depends on what you take and how you use it. Some of the safety concerns to consider include:

  • Drug interactions: Always tell your doctor what OTC medications and supplements you are taking, as there is always a risk of interaction among supplements or with other medicines you might be taking.
  • Intended use: Most over-the-counter medications that you might take for anxiety, such as antihistamines, while approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe, have not been approved for alleviating symptoms of anxiety.
  • Long-term effects: Most OTC medications and supplements are intended to be taken only periodically, and there is little to no research on long-term use. As a result, they carry risks for side effects when taken regularly, and there is potential for misuse.
  • Regulation: Herbal supplements are not regulated in the same way as medications, and long-term studies on efficacy and safety are often lacking. However, most supplements are safe to use under the guidance of a physician.
  • Side effects: For some supplements, such as kava kava, there is concern about serious side effects such as liver damage. It is important to be aware of the potential side effects of any herbal supplements you take and to contact your doctor if you experience any.
  • Potential for overdose: Though rare, there is a potential to overdose on OTC medications if you take too much. Be sure to take only the recommended dose, and store your medications somewhere out of reach of children. Even in the case of OTC medications and supplements, taking too much can be dangerous and even deadly.

In the case that you take too much Benadryl and are at risk of overdose, seek emergency help. You can contact Poison Control Centers 24 hours a day at 1-800-222-1222. Overdose can lead to rapid heart rate, not being able to urinate, blurred vision, agitation, confusion, drowsiness, and unsteadiness among other symptoms. Those that require immediate help include trouble breathing, hallucinations, seizures, and unresponsiveness.

Pros and Cons of OTC Medicines for Anxiety

While there are some advantages to taking OTC remedies for anxiety, there are also a number of potential drawbacks to consider. Before you take any kind of OTC medication for your anxiety, be sure to talk to your doctor to help avoid adverse effects and harmful medication interactions.

Pros
  • Risk of dependence and withdrawal is less than for certain prescription sedatives

  • May aid sleep and relaxation

  • Easy and inexpensive to obtain

  • Potentially useful for short-term episodes of anxiety

  • Potentially useful if you are against taking traditional medications for anxiety

  • May be helpful to supplement other treatments such as psychotherapy

Cons
  • Potential to cause drowsiness during the day

  • Not effective for severe anxiety

  • Not approved by FDA for treating anxiety, or not regulated by FDA

  • Not meant for long-term use for anxiety

  • Potential side effects

Advantages

Benzodiazepines, a type of prescription medication that is commonly prescribed to manage symptoms of severe anxiety, can lead to dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal, particularly when they are taken regularly for a longer period of time, so OTC options can be an appealing choice for people who are worried about this potential with these anti-anxiety medications. OTC remedies are less likely to present this type of risk, although diphenhydramine does have some potential for misuse.

One of the biggest advantages of using an OTC medication such as Benadryl to treat anxiety is that it is fast-acting and convenient. These qualities can be helpful if you need to reduce symptoms of mild anxiety quickly. Because Benadryl causes many people to feel drowsy, it can also help with sleep.

Disadvantages

It is also important to remember, however, that antihistamines like Benadryl can also have unpleasant side effects. Some people may experience severe drowsiness, fatigue, and dizziness.

It's also important to remember that these OTC remedies should not be used to treat severe anxiety or as a long-term solution. These medications and supplements are also not approved by the FDA for the treatment of anxiety. If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, talk to your doctor about your treatment options to ensure the best treatment plan for you.

OTCs to Supplement Other Anxiety Treatments

Other types of treatments for anxiety might include talk therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and acceptance-based therapy) and prescription medications (such as benzodiazepines or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).

You can theoretically use over-the-counter medications for anxiety while receiving other treatments. But first, ask yourself why. Some common reasons to continue to use over-the-counter remedies alongside other treatments include:

  • You are in therapy and need some additional relief from your acute symptoms but you are wary of taking a prescription medication.
  • You are taking a prescription medication, but are waiting for it to take effect and need short-term relief.
  • You are already using an alternative treatment and want to add over-the-counter medication to your treatment plan.

In all these cases, it's likely that you will be better off consulting with your doctor. They can help you determine the best course of treatment for you. If you are only receiving talk therapy and want a short-term solution for mild anxiety that bothers you mostly at night, then an over-the-counter solution might be helpful, though it's best to consult a physician first.

Never combine an over-the-counter medication with prescription medication for anxiety without the advice of your doctor, as there is the possibility of medication interaction and negative side effects.

Who Should Use Over-the-Counter Medications?

A study of 690 German pharmacists determined that people seeking over-the-counter treatments for anxiety and depression:

  • Were more likely to be younger
  • Had a shorter duration of illness
  • Had less severe symptoms
  • Were skeptical about psychopharmacology

However, the researchers questioned whether OTC treatments were a logical or cost-effective solution to these problems. Most people purchasing over-the-counter treatments for anxiety would likely benefit from professional help in the form of talk therapy or prescribed medication. The exception might be for cases of very mild anxiety that seem to be helped by herbal remedies that offer relaxation at bedtime.

Though some doctors may recommend OTC medications like Benadryl for children and adolescents, it's especially important not to give a child Benadryl to treat anxiety without consulting their doctor first. Diphenhydramine can be potentially dangerous, and may not be the best course of treatment for your child's symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

While it may seem like a quick and easy solution to run to the drugstore and pick up an antihistamine to take the edge off when your anxiety symptoms worsen, there are risks associated with using OTC medications, particularly when using them off label for symptoms they are not intended to treat.

Be sure to discuss your symptoms and any OTC treatment options you're considering with your doctor or mental health professional. It's always best to get guidance from your provider about using OTC medications and herbal supplements before starting a new treatment to ensure you get the right treatment for you.

Was this page helpful?
6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Anxiety disorders: Parents' medication guide.

  2. Randles D, Heine SJ, Santos N. The common pain of surrealism and death: Acetaminophen reduces compensatory affirmation following meaning threats. Psychol Sci. 2013;24(6):966-73. doi:10.1177/0956797612464786

  3. MedlinePlus. Diphenhydramine overdose.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Diphenhydramine capsules or tablets.

  5. Saran JS, Barbano RL, Schult R, Wiegand TJ, Selioutski O. Chronic diphenhydramine abuse and withdrawal: A diagnostic challengeNeurol Clin Pract. 2017;7(5):439-441. doi:10.1212/CPJ.0000000000000304

  6. Hamann J, Linde K, Schweiger HD, Kusmakow O, Förstl H. Over-the-counter-drugs for the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders--the views of German pharmacists. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2014;47(3):84-88. doi:10.1055/s-0034-1371810

Additional Reading