Understanding Psychotropic Drugs

Conceptual Close-Up Of A Pill
Carolyn Lagattuta / EyeEm / Getty Images

Psychotropic drugs are medications that alter mood, perceptions, and behavior. Particularly when used in combination with psychotherapy, psychotropic drugs can be powerful tools in managing conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia.

About 20% of respondents in the 2020 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) reported taking psychotropic drugs.

Never take psychotropic drugs (or any prescription drugs not prescribed to you) without a prescription.

How Psychotropics Work

Psychotropic drugs help control symptoms of mental illness such as mood swings, explosive anger, hallucinations/delusions, and other issues that can interfere with therapy. With these symptoms under better control, you can focus on developing skills to cope with and better manage your mental health.

These drugs work by altering the balance of neurotransmitters—such as serotonin, dopamine, and γ-Aminobutyric acid (GABA)—in your body. These chemical messengers carry signals among your organs to help regulate their functions. In the brain, they help neurons communicate with each other to control mood, concentration, perception, and other aspects of brain function. They're specific to the cells they target.

The National Institute of Mental Health found that patients with depression who were prescribed a psychotropic drug showed more progress in two months than those who went without treatment showed their entire lives.


Depending on your mental health condition and symptoms, your doctor might prescribe one of the following types of psychotropics.


The five main categories of antidepressants (and examples of each) are:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Celexa (citalopram), Lexapro (escitalopram), Luvox (fluvoxamine), Paxil (paroxetine), Prozac (fluoxetine), Viibryd (vilazodone), Zoloft (sertraline).
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Cymbalta (duloxetine), Effexor (venlafaxine), Fetzima (levomilnacipran), Pristiq (desvenlafaxine), Savella (milnacipran).
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). Anafranil (clomipramine), Asendin (amoxapine), Elavil (amitriptyline), Norpramin (desipramine), Pamelor (nortriptyline), Sinequan (doxepin)3, Surmontil (trimipramine), Tofranil (imipramine), Vivactil (protriptyline).
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Emsam (selegiline), Marplan (isocarboxazid), Nardil (phenelzine), Parnate (tranylcypromine).
  • Atypical antidepressants. Oleptro (trazodone), Brintellix (vortioxetine), Remeron (mirtazapine), Symbax, Wellbutrin (bupropion).

Healthcare providers may prescribe other antidepressants for treatment-resistant depression.

Like all drugs, antidepressants can have side effects; these vary by medication, and not all people experience them. The most common are anxiety, blurred vision, constipation, dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, numbness, insomnia, nausea, sexual issues, and weight gain. More serious side effects include suicidal ideation, allergic reactions, mania, seizures, hyponatremia (low sodium levels), and serotonin syndrome.


Antipsychotics are prescribed to treat symptoms of psychosis. They fall into two categories: atypical and typical.

Atypical antipsychotics were introduced in the 1990s as an alternative to their typical (first-generation) counterparts and carry a lower risk of side effects. Still, a healthcare provider might prescribe typical antipsychotics if atypical antipsychotics don't work.

Common atypical antipsychotics include:

  • Abilify (aripiprazole)
  • Clozaril (clozapine)
  • Invega (paliperidone)
  • Risperdal (risperidone)
  • Seroquel (quetiapine)
  • Zyprexa (olanzapine)

Common typical antipsychotics include:

  • Thorazine (chlorpromazine)
  • Loxitane (loxapine)
  • Navane (thiothixene)
  • Trilafon (perphenazine)
  • Compro (prochlorperazine)
  • Depixol (flupentixol)
  • Haldol (haloperidol)
  • Mellaril (thioridazine)
  • Prolixin (fluphenazine)
  • Stelazine (trifluoperazine)

The side effects of atypical antipsychotics can include weight gain, metabolic problems, and sexual issues. Those of typical antipsychotics tend to be more severe and can include tremors, spasms, muscle rigidity, and loss of control and coordination, any of which can become permanent even after treatment cessation.


Anxiolytics are designed to prevent or treat anxiety. They can be addictive, so healthcare providers generally prescribe them only for short periods.

Some, such as benzodiazepines, work by increasing GABA levels in your brain to keep you calm and help you sleep. Non-benzodiazepines such as Ambien (zolpidem) are chemically different, but they also boost GABA.

Beta-blockers, usually prescribed for heart problems, are sometimes given to help with phobias and fear of certain situations. They help control sweating, shaking, and an elevated heart rate

Barbiturates such as phenobarbital are similar to but much stronger than benzodiazepines and have been used to treat seizures in children. They're also prescribed to help with insomnia (see below).


This class includes drugs that induce and lengthen sleep. When used this way, they include barbiturates, quinazolinones, benzodiazepines, nonbenzodiazepines, melatonin, antihistamines, and antidepressants,

Mood Stabilizers

Mood stabilizers are typically used to treat bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), and depression. They target chemical imbalances to control extreme mood swings. They include:


Stimulants increase brain activity to raise mood and alertness. They include common substances such as caffeine and nicotine, as well as illicit drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Prescription stimulants affect the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system, enhancing the effects of dopamine and norepinephrine. They can increase blood pressure, respiratory function, and euphoria.

In the past, they were prescribed as weight loss aids, but their addictive nature has precluded that use. Today, they're most often used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.

Common prescriptions in this class include:

Side Effects

Like all drugs, psychotropics come with a range of side effects, some of these include:

  • Cardiac issues
  • Changes in appetite
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Sexual side effects
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Weight gain

Although psychotropic drugs can help regulate your emotions and mood, they can also adversely impact your emotions. For example, you might have a hard time crying when you truly feel sad.

If psychotropics make you feel "not like yourself," tell your doctor so they can find alternative medications or treatments.

Risks & Black Box Warnings

Although psychotropic drugs can help regulate your emotions and mood, they can also sometimes adversely impact your emotions. For example, you might have a hard time crying when you truly feel sad.

Before taking psychotropic drugs, be sure to share with your healthcare provider any known medical issues, such as heart conditions, diabetes, or high blood pressure, to ensure the medication won't aggravate these preexisting conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do children react to psychotropic medications?

    Many psychotropic drugs are not designed to work instantly. For some, the medications can take several weeks to have their full effect, while others may need to try several different medications before finding the right one. Everyone responds to medication differently, so do your best to be patient and keep your healthcare provider informed on how you're feeling.

  • Are psychotropic drugs habit-forming?

    Some, such as stimulants and anti-anxiety drugs, can be addictive. For this reason, healthcare providers typically prescribe these only for short-term use.

  • How quickly do psychotropic drugs begin to work?

    In some cases, you'll notice side effects right away, but you might not feel the full beneficial effects for a few weeks or even months. If you don't think your medication is working, talk with your doctor to find alternatives. Don't ever stop taking a psychotropic on your own; this can be dangerous and uncomfortable. Your doctor will know how to titrate your dosage down over time to avoid this.

5 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. M. PR, Z. BK, Joel JJ. Clinical Handbook of Psychotropic Drugs. Hogrefe Verlag; 2019.

  2. Terlizzi EP, Norris T. Mental health treatment among adults: United States, 2020. NCHS Data Brief, no 419. National Center for Health Statistics. doi:10.15620/cdc:110593

  3. Rizo J. Mechanism of neurotransmitter release coming into focusProtein Sci. 2018;27(8):1364-1391. doi:10.1002/pro.3445

  4. Bet PM, Hugtenburg JG, Penninx BW, Hoogendijk WJ. Side effects of antidepressants during long-term use in a naturalistic settingEur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2013;23(11):1443-1451. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2013.05.001

  5. National Institute of Mental Health. Mental Health Medications.

Additional Reading

By Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD
 Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University.