How Does Ativan (Lorazepam) Work?

Ativan is One of the Most Common Medications Used to Treat Panic Disorder

Pharmacist talking to customer about prescription
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Ativan (lorazepam), is a common medication used for the treatment of panic disorder and other anxiety conditions. Learn how this benzodiazepine medication works.

What is Ativan?

Ativan is part of a class of medications known as benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepine drugs are 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).

Ativan and these other anti-anxiety medications can help lower the intensity of panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms. Ativan is most frequently used to treat generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

Ativan is often used for to treat other illnesses, despite it not being approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for these disorders. Some doctors will prescribe Ativan for bipolar disorder, alcohol withdrawal, to prevent nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy, and for insomnia.

How Does Ativan Treat 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 works to affect these receptors and slow down the central nervous system (CNS). This action reduces excess agitation and excitement in the brain, inducing a calming and relaxing effect. Through slowing down the CNS, Ativan is also able to help lessen the intensity of anxiety and panic attacks.

Ativan works quickly, making it an effective solution to temporarily managing panic symptoms. Ativan enters your system relatively rapidly and lasts a few hours. This means that Ativan may need to be taken a few times a day to control your anxiety and other symptoms. For some, Ativan will need to be taken for several weeks before they experience the benefits.

What Are the Side Effects of Ativan?

Some of the most common side effects of Ativan include:

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

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.

Is Ativan Addictive?

Ativan, along with all benzodiazepines, is classified as a controlled substance. It 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 for addiction issues. 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.

What Other Precautions Are There to Taking Ativan?

Caution should be taken if you have a history of certain medical conditions.

Before taking Ativan, consult your doctor if you have been diagnosed with these or any other medical condition:

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: 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.


Batelaan, N. M., Van BalkomStein, A. J., and Stein,  "Evidence-based Pharmacotherapy of Panic Disorder: An Update". The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 403-415, 2012.

Food & Drug Administration. Ativan (Lorazepam) Prescribing Information. Revised 2014.