Can Benadryl Be Used for Anxiety?

Woman taking medication.

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Can you use Benadryl 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 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.

Do Over-the-Counter Medications Work for Anxiety?

First things first—you're probably wondering if over-the-counter medications even work for 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. Below is a list.

  • antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • herbal remedies (e.g., Kava Kava, l-theanine, 5-hydroxy-tryptophan or 5-HTP) passionflower, valerian, lavender, lemon balm, skullcap, chamomile
  • muscle relaxants, sleep medications
  • cough syrups, cold medicines, painkillers
  • vitamins and minerals (e.g., B complex, magnesium)

Okay, so now you have a list of possible over-the-counter medications for anxiety. Let's consider each one-by-one and what you can expect in terms of effectiveness.

Benadryl

Antihistamines such as Benadryl are used to manage allergic reactions, but they can also cause sedation as a side effect. This is why some people take Benadryl for anxiety because of the calming and sleep-inducing effects that it can have. However, these effects are less than you would see for prescription sedatives such as benzodiazepines.

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

Herbal Remedies

Herbal remedies such as 5-HTP, passionflower, kava, valerian, lavender, lemon balm, skull cap, and chamomile can be beneficial in terms of having calming effects but these are generally mild and not strong enough that they would effectively treat acute anxiety symptoms.

For this reason, herbal remedies are best used to help calm down or fall asleep before bed rather than as a first-line defense for intense anxiety.

Herbal remedies are generally used in the form of teas, sprays, pills, oils, or tinctures.

Muscle Relaxers/Sleep Medications

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.

Cough/ Cold/ 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 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 using a blood test), it's unlikely that taking vitamin or mineral supplements will reduce your anxiety.

That being said, there is no harm in taking a daily multivitamin to support your overall health.

Are Over-the-Counter Medications Safe for Treating Anxiety?

What about the safety of over-the-counter medications for anxiety? In general, that depends on what you are purchasing.

FDA-Approved Medications (e.g., antihistamines, painkillers)

Benadryl was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) originally in 1946 and then later changed to an over-the-counter drug. Since it is classed as a medication it is regulated by the FDA.

However, it's important to realize that most over-the-counter medications that you might take for anxiety such as antihistamines or painkillers are not approved by the FDA for the purpose of alleviating symptoms of anxiety.

They aren't meant to be taken over the long term to treat anxiety, they do carry risks for side-effects and there is even some potential for abuse.

Non-FDA Approved (e.g., supplements)

On the other hand, herbal supplements are not regulated in the same way as medications and long-term studies on efficacy and safety are lacking. However, most supplements are safe to use as their effects are mild.

For some supplements, such as kava kava, there is concern over serious side effects such as liver damage. For this reason, it is important to be aware of potential side effects of herbal supplements and to contact your doctor if you experience any of these.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Over-the-Counter Medications Safe for Anxiety?

Below, let's consider some of the pros and cons of taking over-the-counter medications for anxiety.

Pros

  • Risk of dependence and withdrawal is less than for prescription sedatives (e.g., benzodiazepines)
  • 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

Can You Use Over-the-Counter Medications to Supplement Other Anxiety Treatments?

First, let's consider what other types of treatments you might be receiving for anxiety. These might include talk therapy (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and acceptance-based therapy) and traditional medications (e.g., benzodiazepines, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

While you can theoretically use over-the-counter medications for anxiety while receiving other treatments, the question is: why are you doing it? If you ask yourself that first, you'll be able to determine whether it's the best course of action.

Are you...

  • Receiving therapy but wary of taking a prescription medication?
  • Taking a prescription medication but wanting something in the short-term to feel better?
  • Using some other alternative treatment and wanting to add in an over-the-counter medication?

In the vast majority of cases, you will be better off consulting with your doctor about being prescribed a standard medication for your anxiety instead of taking something over the counter.

You should 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.

That being said, 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.

Who Should Use Over-the-Counter Medications for Anxiety?

In a study of 690 German pharmacists, they dispensed a large number of over the counter medications for these indications and it was determined that people seeking out over-the-counter treatments for anxiety and depression were more likely to be younger, have a shorter duration of illness, less severe symptoms, and to be 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 and talk therapy or prescribed medication.

The only exception might be for cases of very mild anxiety that seem to be helped by herbal remedies that help to relax you before sleep. Otherwise, you are probably better off seeking medical attention if it's to the point that you are browsing the aisles at the drug store looking for something to stop your anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

What do you think? Will you try Benadryl for anxiety? Based on what we've reviewed, it seems like the only reasonable situation in which you should take an antihistamine for anxiety is if you need a quick short-term solution to some transient short-term anxiety.

On the other hand, if your anxiety is long-standing, severe, or impairing your daily life, you will be much better off seeking the advice of a doctor who can prescribe a medication for which the safety and efficacy have been established.

While it may seem easy or fast to run to the drug store and to take an antihistamine or painkiller to knock yourself out every time your anxiety takes hold, there are many risks associated with this practice and the outcome is not likely to be as good as if you received proper help.

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