Medications for Panic, OCD, Worry, Phobia and Social Anxiety
The Use of Anxiety Medications
Here you will first find a list of all the major medications and the problems they address. Then you will see each of the major problems (panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and so forth), with descriptions of the commonly recommended medications for that difficulty.
(I gratefully acknowledge James Ballenger, MD for his review of this section.)
- alprazolam (Xanax) panic, generalized anxiety, phobias, social anxiety, OCD
- clonazepam (Klonopin) panic, generalized anxiety, phobias, social anxiety
- diazepam (Valium) generalized anxiety, panic, phobias
- lorazepam (Ativan) generalized anxiety, panic, phobias
- oxazepam (Serax) generalized anxiety, phobias
- chlordiazepoxide (Librium) generalized anxiety, phobias
- propranolol (Inderal) social anxiety
- atenolol (Tenormin) social anxiety
- imipramine (Tofranil) panic, depression, generalized anxiety, PTSD
- desipramine (Norpramin, Pertofrane and others) panic, generalized anxiety, depression, PTSD
- nortriptyline (Aventyl or Pamelor) panic, generalized anxiety, depression, PTSD
- amitriptyline (Elavil) panic, generalized anxiety, depression, PTSD
- doxepin (Sinequan or Adapin) panic, depression
- clomipramine (Anafranil) panic, OCD, depression
- trazodone (Desyrel) depression, generalized anxiety
MONOAMINE OXIDASE INHIBITORS (MAOIs)
- phenelzine (Nardil) panic, OCD, social anxiety, depression, generalized anxiety, PTSD
- tranylcypromine (Parnate) panic, OCD, depression, generalized anxiety, PTSD
SELECTIVE SEROTONIN REUPTAKE INHIBITORS (SSRIs)
- fluoxetine (Prozac) OCD, depression, panic, social anxiety, PTSD, generalized anxiety
- fluvoxamine (Luvox) OCD, depression, panic, social anxiety, PTSD, generalized anxiety
- sertraline (Zoloft) OCD, depression, panic, social anxiety, PTSD, generalized anxiety
- paroxetine (Paxil) OCD, depression, panic, social anxiety, PTSD, generalized anxiety
- escitalopram oxalate (Lexapro) OCD, panic,depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, generalized anxiety
- citalopram (Celexa) depression, OCD, panic, PTSD, generalized anxiety
SEROTONIN-NOREPINEPHRINE REUPTAKE INHIBITORS (SNRIs)
- venlafaxine (Effexor) panic, OCD, depression, social anxiety, generalized anxiety
- venlafaxine XR (Effexor XR) panic, OCD, depression, social anxiety, generalized anxiety
- duloxetine (Cymbalta) generalized anxiety, social anxiety, panic, OCD
- buspirone (BuSpar) generalized anxiety, OCD, panic
- Valproate (Depakote) panic
- Pregabalin (Lyrica) generalized anxiety disorder
- Gabapentin (Neurontin) generalized anxiety, social anxiety
A. Panic Attacks
For panic attacks, the greatest benefit that medications can provide is to enhance the patient’s motivation and accelerate progress toward facing panic and all of its repercussions. For a drug to help in this area, it must help in at least one of the two stages of panic. The first stage is anticipatory anxiety: all the uncomfortable physical symptoms and negative thoughts that rise up as you anticipate facing panic. The second stage is the symptoms of the panic attack itself. Both current research and clinical experience suggest that certain medications may help reduce symptoms during one or both of these stages for some people. However, if a medication can specifically block the panic attack itself, many patients no longer anticipate events with such anxiety and can overcome their phobias more quickly.
The primary medications used today for panic disorder are several types of antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and the benzodiazepines (sometimes in combination with these SSRIs).
The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed drugs for panic today and offer fewer side effects than the tricyclic antidepressants. These include fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa) and escitalopram (Lexapro). In studies of patients with panic disorder, 75 to 80% of those placed on an SSRI significantly improve. This rate is equal to the success rate of the tricyclic antidepressants that have proven helpful.
The serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SSNR) venlafaxine (Effexor) has also been shown to help control panic attacks, as has the mild tranquilizer buspirone (BuSpar).
The most common benzodiazepines for panic attacks are alprazolam (Xanax), alprazolam XR (Xanax XR), and clonazepam (Klonopin). They block panic attacks quicker than the antidepressants, often in a week or two. They are also used as needed before a panic-provoking situation. They tend to have fewer side effects than the antidepressants. However, they can cause withdrawal symptoms as you taper off them. Because alprazolam is quicker acting than clonazepam, its withdrawal effects can be stronger as well. In studies on panic disorder, 43% of patients on alprazolam improved after eight weeks on less than 4 mg per day, and 30% get better on 4 to 6 mg per day.
The quick acting nature of alprazolam makes it an ideal medication to take as needed just before panic-provoking events. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to offer you its anxiety-reducing benefits. If you place it under your tongue to dissolve (called sublingual), it can offer benefits within 5 to 8 minutes. Be ready for its bitter taste!
Clonazepam and is the extended release (XR) formula of alprazolam last longer in the body than alprazolam. This allows you to dose twice a day for a full 24-hour coverage, while alprazolam requires four or five dosings for the same period. Some investigators believe they are a better choice than alprazolam during those times because their primary effects are not as strong and also wear off more slowly. When you are practicing the skills of facing your fears, if you notice the effects of a medication, you may tend to attribute your successes more to the medication than to your own efforts. Medications should serve as helpers to your own courage and skills and not get all the credit for good results. Because alprazolam XR’s and clonazepam’s effects can be less noticeable, you will be more likely to say, “Hey, I did it!” instead of saying, “Boy, that drug really works well. Thank goodness it was there to save me!” However, some patients don’t like how long the effects last.
No reliable studies support the use of other minor tranquilizers such as oxazepam (Serax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium) or clorazepate (Tranxene), although these drugs may make the patient feel somewhat calmer.
Of the antidepressants, the tricyclic antidepressant drug imipramine (Tofranil) has the longest track record for treating panic attacks. Other tricyclic antidepressant drugs that can help control panic attacks are desipramine (Norpramin or Pertofrane), nortriptyline (Aventyl or Pamelor), amitriptyline (Elavil), doxepin (Sinequan or Adapin), trazodone (Desyrel) and clomipramine (Anafranil). In studies of patients with panic disorder, 75 to 80% of those placed on an antidepressant significantly improve.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are another family of antidepressants that manage the symptoms of panic. Research studies support extensive clinical experience that shows phenelzine (Nardil) as the preferred MAOI. Tranylcypromine (Parnate) is also sometimes effective.
The antidepressants amoxapine (Asendin) and maprotiline (Ludiomil) are not generally effective for panic disorder. Bupropion (Wellbutrin) does not have enough evidence yet to verify its effectiveness for panic.
If a physician recommends a combination of a benzodiazepine and an antidepressant, two approaches are possible. One is to take the antidepressant daily and use a benzodiazepine as needed for increased periods of anxiety or panic. Another method is to use the benzodiazepine with the antidepressant during the first month or two of treatment. As the primary effects of the antidepressant begin, after 4 to 8 weeks, the patient then slowly tapers off the benzodiazepine.
B. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
For those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), medications can reduce the degree of intensity of the worries and their corresponding distress. Medications do not prevent obsessions from occurring. However, when the medication lessens the strength of the worries, the patient can then use self-help skills to control them.
The SSRIs appear helpful in treating OCD, as well as the antidepressants clomipramine (Anafranil) and venlafaxine (Effexor). The anti-obsessional benefits of any of these medications may not be fully apparent until 5 to 10 weeks after treatment starts.
Imipramine, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), venlafaxine, alprazolam and the mild tranquilizer buspirone (BuSpar) also show some indications of being useful for certain individuals. In addition, some patients with OCD may also have an underlying mood disorder and can benefit by the drug lithium.
About 20% of individuals with OCD also have tics, which are sudden, uncontrollable physical movements (such as eye blinking) or Tourette’s syndrome, which includes vocalizations (such as throat clearing). The atypical antipsychotics such as risperidone, clozapine and quetiapine, and the blood pressure drugs clonidine and guanfacine, can help with these tics and Tourette’s symptoms. Your physician can help determine what medications can be used in combination with any of these.
Tricyclic antidepressants and Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) have not been shown to be helpful for OCD.
C. General Anxiety
Other commonly prescribed drugs are buspirone (BuSpar), trazodone, venlafaxine and several of the benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), oxazepam (Serax) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).
D. Simple Phobias
For those with simple phobias, medications can help to reduce the tensions associated with entering the fearful situation. A patient can take a low dose of a benzodiazepine about one hour before exposure to the phobic stimulus to help reduce anticipatory anxiety. If this is not sufficient, the physician can prescribe a higher dose for the next time. A chemically dependent patient who is not currently abusing drugs might benefit from one that is not attractive to drug abusers, such as oxazaepam (Serax) or chlordiazepoxide (Librium). It is important to note that medications are not a successful primary treatment of simple phobias. The treatment of choice involves many of the steps you have read about in this book– learning skills of relaxation and gradually approaching your feared situation while applying those skills. Consider medications only as an option to assist you in your efforts.
In a novel approach to treating anxiety, researchers are exploring the use of d-cycloserine, an antibiotic, to enhance learning and memory during cognitive behavioral treatment. Small studies with individuals experiencing specific phobias or social anxiety have shown that, taken one hour before “exposure” treatment, this prescribed drug improved subjects’ success rate.
E. Social Anxieties and Phobias
For those with social anxieties, medications can help to reduce the tensions associated with entering the fearful situation, to bring a racing heart and sweaty palms under control, and to reduce some shyness.
The drugs with the longest history of use with social anxiety are the beta adrenergic blocking agents, also known as beta blockers. The most commonly used are propranolol (Inderal) and atenolol (Tenormin). The patient can take propranolol as needed or in dosages of 10 to 20 mg three to four times a day, or atenolol in dosages of 25 to 100 mg once daily. Surprisingly, controlled research studies have not supported the widespread anecdotal reports of success with beta blockers. It’s possible that their best use is for occasional mild social anxieties associated with performance.
The high potency benzodiazepines clonazepam (1-4 mg per day) and alprazolam (1.5 to 6 mg per day) may also be effective. A combination of a beta blocker and low dosages of clonazepam or alprazolam could be best for some individuals.
Current research suggests that the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), especially phenelzine, are most highly effective medications for treating those with the more generalized form of social anxiety. In studies, about 70% of subjects improve significantly within four weeks. Occasionally, however, a social phobic can experience an exaggerated response to an MAOI and become too talkative, outgoing or socially uninhibited. In that case the prescribing physician will lower the medication dosage or stop it altogether.
One approach to drug treatment that experts recommend for social fears is to begin by taking a medication only as needed. If patients are anxious only about specific events and if they experience primarily physical symptoms (sweating, racing heart, etc.), then about one hour before the event, they can take propranolol or atenolol. Propranolol seems to work better for occasional problems, while atenolol may work better for continued problems. If their symptoms are more cognitive (they worry about their performance or the judgment of others), then they can take alprazolam one hour before the event. If they have a mix of these symptoms then a combination of these medications may be more helpful. Benefits of these drugs should last about four hours.
If the social anxiety is more general, unpredictable and widespread, then patients may need to take venlafaxine, an MAOI such as phenelzine, or an SSRI such as sertraline. Keep in mind that these medications take several weeks to work.
Bupropion (Wellbutrin) does not have enough evidence yet to verify its effectiveness for social anxiety disorder.
As mentioned in the previous section, researchers are currently experimenting with the use of d-cycloserine, an antibiotic, to enhance learning and memory during cognitive behavioral treatment. Small studies have shown its benefit with specific phobias and social anxiety.
F. Anxiety or Panic with Depression
For those suffering from a combination of depression and anxiety or panic, certain antidepressant medications can help reduce the depressive symptoms while simultaneously helping to control the panic attacks. The physician can prescribe one of the tricyclic antidepressants with sedating effects, such as imipramine or one of the MAOI’s. It is also possible to combine the use of a tricyclic antidepressant with buspirone or the benzodiazepine alprazolam.
G. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Medications can be effective in treating PTSD, acting to reduce its core symptoms as well as lifting depression and reducing disability. The SSRIs appear to be the medications of choice, with some study showing the benefits of tricyclic antidepressants, MAOIs and some anticonvulsants. However, research into the pharmacotherapy of PTSD lags behind that of the other anxiety disorders. In the years to come, other medications or newer drugs may prove to be more effective.