The term anxiolytic is now commonly replaced with the term anti-anxiety medication. Both terms refer to drugs, and sometimes herbs that are used to combat anxiety or panic disorder. Many anxiolytic drugs are also used to help promote better sleep, but primary use, as the name implies is to promote a state of calm.
There are several classes of anxiolytic drugs. Early medications, which are now less frequently prescribed, include various barbiturates, like Phenobarbital. These tended to be highly addictive and medical researchers and doctors looked for substitutes that would still promote relaxation without carrying such a high rate for addiction. One drug that was tried was the medication methaqualone, also known as quaaludes. Unfortunately, methaqualone soon become a popular recreational drug and did tend to create drug dependency. The quaalude overuse and abuse problem became so severe by the 1970s that the US government, and many other governments, banned its use completely.
Another group of anxiolytic drugs are benzodiazepines. These include familiar names like Valium® (diazepam), and Xanax® (alprazolam). Though these medications can promote calm, many of them, particularly aprazolam have short half-lives. The body typically builds up a tolerance to the medications too, meaning that long term users may need to take more of these anxiolytic drugs in order to achieve the same effects. For short-term use, under carefully controlled circumstances, they can be very beneficial. A physician should evaluate long-term use of any benzodiazepine, and it is important to never simply stop taking these drugs if you have used them for a long time as this causes extreme risk of seizures.
Since anxiolytic drugs like barbiturates and benzodiazepines carry such high risk of addiction, researchers still sought other medications that might be helpful and carry less risk of dependency. Some of these newer medications fall into the selected serotonin reuptake inhibiter (SSRI) or anti-depressant class. In particular, Zoloft®, and Paxil®, have been touted as potentially beneficial for people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder. Administration of SSRIs must be carefully watched, particularly if a person exhibits mood disorder tendencies such as bipolar I or II. SSRIs can provoke manic states instead of creating a calmer mind when used by people diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.
A number of herbal remedies and preparations are considered anxiolytic, though many have scant evidence to back up claims of efficacy. Among these preparations are herbals like St. John’s Wort, valerian, and chamomile. Kava, or kava kava is, to many, an effective way to reduce anxiety, and there is some research supporting the claim that kava may be a useful anxiolytic. Even though it is of natural derivation, use of kava, or any other herb should be as directed by a medical doctor, since all of these are technically drugs and may interact with other medications or conditions.