Interventions for treating anxiety after stroke

Review question

To determine whether any treatments might reduce the symptoms of anxiety, and subsequently improve quality of life, for people who have had a stroke.


Anxiety after stroke occurs frequently and can be treated with antidepressants or other anxiety-reducing drugs, or both, or with psychological therapy.

Study characteristics

Evidence is current to January 2017. We found three studies with 196 stroke survivors who had received a diagnosis of anxiety. One study assessed the effect of a relaxation CD used five times a week for one month for participants with a diagnosis of anxiety. Two studies assessed the use of antidepressants in participants who had both anxiety and depression.

Key results

One study found that participants were less anxious three months after using a relaxation CD when compared with those who were given no therapy. One study reported that participants were less anxious when treated with an antidepressant medicine (paroxetine), or with paroxetine and psychotherapy, than with standard care. This study reported that half of the participants receiving paroxetine experienced side effects that included nausea, vomiting, or dizziness. The third study also reported that participants were less anxious when treated with an antidepressant (buspirone hydrochloride) than with standard care, and only 14% of those receiving buspirone hydrocholoride reported nausea or palpitations.

Quality of the evidence

We judged that the quality of this evidence was very low. Studies were few and each included a small number of participants. Studies assessing antidepressants did not include comparison with a placebo drug, and information in both study reports was insufficient to permit assessment of whether other biases had been introduced. The study of relaxation therapy was very small, with loss of two participants who used the CD, and the study recruitment process may have attracted participants who had a positive bias towards psychological therapies.


Current evidence is insufficient to guide the treatment of anxiety after stroke. Additional well-conducted randomised trials are needed.

Authors' conclusions: 

Evidence is insufficient to guide the treatment of anxiety after stroke. Further well-conducted randomised controlled trials (using placebo or attention controls) are required to assess pharmacological agents and psychological therapies.

Read the full abstract...

Approximately 20% of stroke patients experience clinically significant levels of anxiety at some point after stroke. Physicians can treat these patients with antidepressants or other anxiety-reducing drugs, or both, or they can provide psychological therapy. This review looks at available evidence for these interventions. This is an update of the review first published in October 2011.


The primary objective was to assess the effectiveness of pharmaceutical, psychological, complementary, or alternative therapeutic interventions in treating stroke patients with anxiety disorders or symptoms. The secondary objective was to identify whether any of these interventions for anxiety had an effect on quality of life, disability, depression, social participation, caregiver burden, or risk of death.

Search strategy: 

We searched the trials register of the Cochrane Stroke Group (January 2017). We also searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; the Cochrane Library; 2017, Issue 1: searched January 2017); MEDLINE (1966 to January 2017) in Ovid; Embase (1980 to January 2017) in Ovid; the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL; 1937 to January 2017) in EBSCO; and PsycINFO (1800 to January 2017) in Ovid. We conducted backward citation searches of reviews identified through database searches and forward citation searches of included studies. We contacted researchers known to be involved in related trials, and we searched clinical trials registers for ongoing studies.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised trials including participants with a diagnosis of both stroke and anxiety for which treatment was intended to reduce anxiety. Two review authors independently screened and selected titles and abstracts for inclusion.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed risk of bias. We performed a narrative review. We planned to do a meta-analysis but were unable to do so as included studies were not sufficiently comparable.

Main results: 

We included three trials (four interventions) involving 196 participants with stroke and co-morbid anxiety. One trial (described as a 'pilot study') randomised 21 community-dwelling stroke survivors to four-week use of a relaxation CD or to wait list control. This trial assessed anxiety using the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale and reported a reduction in anxiety at three months among participants who had used the relaxation CD (mean (standard deviation (SD) 6.9 (± 4.9) and 11.0 (± 3.9)), Cohen's d = 0.926, P value = 0.001; 19 participants analysed).

The second trial randomised 81 participants with co-morbid anxiety and depression to paroxetine, paroxetine plus psychotherapy, or standard care. Mean levels of anxiety severity scores based on the Hamilton Anxiety Scale (HAM-A) at follow-up were 5.4 (SD ± 1.7), 3.8 (SD ± 1.8), and 12.8 (SD ± 1.9), respectively (P value < 0.01).

The third trial randomised 94 stroke patients, also with co-morbid anxiety and depression, to receive buspirone hydrochloride or standard care. At follow-up, the mean levels of anxiety based on the HAM-A were 6.5 (SD ± 3.1) and 12.6 (SD ± 3.4) in the two groups, respectively, which represents a significant difference (P value < 0.01). Half of the participants receiving paroxetine experienced adverse events that included nausea, vomiting, or dizziness; however, only 14% of those receiving buspirone experienced nausea or palpitations. Trial authors provided no information about the duration of symptoms associated with adverse events. The trial of relaxation therapy reported no adverse events.

The quality of the evidence was very low. Each study included a small number of participants, particularly the study of relaxation therapy. Studies of pharmacological agents presented details too limited to allow judgement of selection, performance, and detection bias and lack of placebo treatment in control groups. Although the study of relaxation therapy had allocated participants to treatment using an adequate method of randomisation, study recruitment methods might have introduced bias, and drop-outs in the intervention group may have influenced results.