How Does Ativan (Lorazepam) Work?

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Ativan (lorazepam) is a common medication used for the treatment of panic disorder and other anxiety conditions. It's a type of benzodiazepine, a class of medications sometimes referred to as sedatives or tranquilizers due to their calming and relaxing effect on the body. Other common benzodiazepines include Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and Valium (diazepam)

While Ativan is most frequently used to treat anxiety disorders, it's often prescribed to treat anxiety symptoms that accompany other psychiatric conditions as well as for other illnesses, despite not being approved for them by the Food and Drug Administration (aka an "off-label use"). For instance, some doctors prescribe Ativan for alcohol withdrawal, to prevent nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy, and for insomnia.

Ativan Side Effects
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

How Ativan Treats Panic Disorder

Neurotransmitters in the brain, known as gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors (GABA), are partly responsible for regulating sleep and feelings of relaxation and anxiety. Ativan acts on these receptors to slow down the central nervous system (CNS). This reduces excess agitation and excitement in the brain, inducing a calming and relaxing effect.

By depressing the CNS, Ativan is also able to lessen the intensity of anxiety and panic attacks. Ativan works quickly, making it an effective solution to temporarily managing panic symptoms. The drug enters your system relatively rapidly and lasts a few hours.

Side Effects of Ativan

Some of the most common side effects of Ativan include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Heartburn
  • Lack of coordination or unsteadiness
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Nausea

If these side effects continue or increase in severity, contact your doctor.

Some serious side effects are also possible if you take Ativan. These include mental and mood changes, hallucinations, thoughts of suicide, difficulty walking, and breathing issues. If you experience any of these symptoms, call your doctor right away.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Ativan and Addiction

Like all benzodiazepines, Ativan is classified as a controlled substance, which means its possession and use are regulated by the government. Ativan has the potential to be abused, leading to physical or psychological dependence. Typical withdrawal symptoms include sleep disturbances, irritability, increased nervousness, and muscle cramps.

Your doctor will likely discuss strategies to minimize the risk of addiction. Never attempt to stop your medication on your own. Should you decide to discontinue your prescription, your prescribing doctor will assist you in gradually decreasing your dosage.

Additional Precautions For Taking Ativan

Caution should be taken if you have a history of certain medical conditions. Before taking Ativan, consult your doctor if you've been diagnosed with these or any other medical condition:

  • Depression
  • Drug or alcohol addiction
  • Glaucoma
  • Liver disease
  • Lung disease
  • Sleep apnea

Ativan Drug Interactions

Ativan depresses the central nervous system (CNS). Alcohol and certain medications that have a similar effect on the CNS should be avoided. Make certain that your doctor is up to date on all of your current prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Drowsiness and Dizziness

Feeling tired and lightheaded are common side effects of Ativan. Until you are used to how this medication affects you, caution should be taken while driving or performing other tasks that require your full attention and concentration.

Pregnancy and Nursing

It is possible for Ativan to be passed to a child during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Talk to your doctor about the risk of using Ativan while pregnant or nursing.

Older Adults Taking Ativan

The side effects of Ativan are often more noticeable in older adults. To limit these effects, your doctor may need to adjust your dosage. This information is intended to provide a general overview of the use of Ativan for panic disorder. Any questions or concerns you may have about your prescription should be addressed with your doctor or pharmacist.

4 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. Lorazepram (Avitan). National Alliance on Mental Illness.

  2. Lorazepam. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

  3. Ativan. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

  4. Mental Health Medications. National Institute of Mental Health.

By Katharina Star, PhD
Katharina Star, PhD, is an expert on anxiety and panic disorder. Dr. Star is a professional counselor, and she is trained in creative art therapies and mindfulness.