How Xanax (Alprazolam) Is Used to Treat Panic Disorder

6 Xanax pills next to ruler

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Xanax, the trademark name for alprazolam, is one of the most well-known and commonly prescribed medications for anxiety and panic disorders. Approved in the United States in 1981, the drug has a long history in managing these illnesses. 

What Is Xanax?

Xanax is an anti-anxiety drug belonging to a group of medications known as benzodiazepines. These medications are also called tranquilizers due to their sedative and calming effects. Other commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include Klonopin (clonazepam), Valium (diazepam), and Ativan (lorazepam). Xanax can help reduce the severity of anxiety and panic attacks.

Primarily used for the treatment of panic disorder (with or without agoraphobia), Xanax is also used in the treatment of other anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Xanax can also be prescribed for the treatment of seizures, sleep disturbances, depression, bipolar disorder, and other conditions.

How Xanax Treats Panic Disorder

Like other benzodiazepines, Xanax impacts receptors for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the brain that's involved in sleep regulation, relaxation, and anxiety. This action can assist in slowing down the central nervous system (CNS), decreasing agitation and over-excitement while creating a tranquilizing or relaxing effect. Depressing the CNS also helps alleviate feelings of anxiety and lessen the severity of panic attacks.

Xanax typically produces fast-acting results, rapidly eliciting feelings of calm and quickly decreasing panic disorder symptoms. Xanax has a short half-life, meaning it gets in and out of your system quickly. This has advantages and drawbacks, including the fact that you have to take it frequently, and it may result in ups and downs in anxiety control in some people.

Side Effects of Xanax

Some of the most common side effects of Xanax include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Lack of coordination or unsteadiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion
  • Memory impairment

The Potential for Xanax Addiction

As controlled substances, all benzodiazepines, including Xanax, have the potential to be both physically and emotionally addictive and can be abused. It can be hard to discontinue Xanax if a dependence to the drug develops, as a person may experience withdrawal symptoms. Some typical withdrawal symptoms include increased anxiety, tremors, sleep disturbances, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and muscle pain or tension.

To minimize the risk of addiction, Xanax is often prescribed for a limited period of time. Your doctor may regulate your prescription by only providing a certain amount of medication so that your condition can be periodically reevaluated before continuing on Xanax. Never increase or decrease your dosage without first consulting your doctor. To prevent withdrawal symptoms, your doctor may gradually reduce your dosage.

Other Precautions for Taking Xanax

There are several precautions and contraindications to consider when taking Xanax:

Medical History: Caution should be taken if you have a history of certain medical conditions. Consult your doctor before taking Xanax if you've been diagnosed with these or any other medical condition:

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

Drug Interactions: Because Xanax slows down the CNS, you may experience side effects when taking Xanax with certain other medications that also depress the CNS. These symptoms may include increased depression, sleep issues, or extreme fatigue. Alcohol should also be avoided.

Before starting on Xanax, tell your doctor if you're taking any prescribed or over-the-counter medications.

Pregnancy and Nursing: It's possible for Xanax to be passed to a child during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Talk to your doctor about the risk of using Xanax while pregnant or nursing.

Older Adults: Older adults are often more susceptible to the effects of Xanax. Prescribing doctors may need to adjust dosage to assist in limiting these effects.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is an overview of some of the FAQs regarding Xanax use for panic disorder. This summary does not cover all possible scenarios, such as potential side effects, complications, or precautions and contraindications. Always consult your doctor if you have any questions and concerns about your prescription.

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Article Sources

  • Batelaan, N. M., Van BalkomStein, A. J., and Stein, D. (2012). Evidence-based Pharmacotherapy of Panic Disorder: An Update. The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 15, 403-415.
  • Hoffman, E. J. & Mathew, S. J. (2008). Anxiety Disorders: A Comprehensive Review of Pharmacotherapies. Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, 75, 248–262.
  • Silverman, Harold M. (2010). The Pill Book. 14th ed. New York, NY: Bantam Books.