Can Benadryl Be Used for Anxiety?

Can you use Benadryl (diphenhydramine) for anxiety? That might be a question you have if you are living with anxiety and don't like traditional medications or have not yet visited your doctor. Beyond Benadryl, there are also other over-the-counter (OTC) medications that you might consider using for anxiety.

But the question is—are they safe? Do they work? What are the pros and cons? And, can you use them to supplement other treatments you might receive? Let's consider each of these questions below to help you sort through your options in terms of over-the-counter medication for anxiety.

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 consider this question, first let's consider the different over-the-counter medications that you might use for anxiety because Benadryl is only 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. Some people take Benadryl for anxiety because of the calming and sleep-inducing side effects that it can have. However, these effects are less than you would experience with prescription sedatives such as benzodiazepines.

Benadryl takes about 15 to 30 minutes to start working and its peak effect happens around 2 to 4 hours. An adult dose to obtain sedating effects is between 25 and 50 milligrams.

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 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 are generally considered safe and may provide some relief of symptoms of anxiety. Some of these include:

Such herbal remedies are generally found in the form of teas, sprays, pills, oils, or tinctures. Herbal remedies can also have calming effects, but these are generally mild.

These remedies are not strong enough to effectively treat acute anxiety symptoms. Herbal remedies are best used to help you calm down or fall asleep, rather than as a first-line defense for intense anxiety.

Cough and Cold Medicines and 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 (determined by your doctor), it's unlikely that taking vitamin or mineral supplements will reduce anxiety. 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 over-the-counter medications for anxiety generally depends on what you are purchasing and how you are using it. Some of the safety concerns you should 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 aren't intended to be taken long term and often, there is little to no research on long-term use. As a result, they carry risks for side effects 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 as their effects are mild.
  • 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 of these.

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 medication interactions.

Pros
  • Risk of dependence and withdrawal is less than for 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 worried about the addiction potential of these anti-anxiety medications. OTC remedies are less likely to present this type of risk, although diphenhydramine does have the 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. This 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 aid in sleep.

Disadvantages

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

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

OTCs to Supplement Other Anxiety Treatments

Other types of treatments you might be receiving for anxiety might include talk therapy (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and acceptance-based therapy) and prescription medications (e.g., 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 want short-term relief.
  • You are already using an alternative treatment and want to add in over-the-counter medication.

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 to mild anxiety that bothers you mostly at night, then an over-the-counter solution might be helpful.

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.

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 study wondered whether this was a logical or cost-effective solution to these problems. Most people purchasing over-the-counter treatments for anxiety would probably 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.

A Word From Verywell

While it may seem like a quick and easy solution to run to the drugstore and pick up an antihistamine or painkiller to take the edge off every time your anxiety takes hold, there are many risks associated with this practice. Be sure to discuss your symptoms with your doctor or mental health professional and get their guidance for using OTC medications and herbal supplements, if those options are the best course of action for you.

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