What Are Benzodiazepines (Such As Valium, Xanax), How Do They Work, And How Are They Used To Treat Anxiety Disorders?

Dr. Brian Brennan answers the question: 'Benzodiazepines For Anxiety Disorders?'

ByABC News
April 15, 2008, 5:48 PM

— -- Question: What are benzodiazepines (such as Valium, Xanax), how do they work, and how are they used to treat anxiety disorders?

Answer: Benzodiazepines are some of the most commonly used medications in psychiatry. They comprise a large family of medications with some of the more commonly used ones or things like lorazepam -- or Ativan -- clonazepam -- or Klonopin -- alprazolam -- or Xanax -- and diazepam -- or Valium. Benzodiazepines have a number of properties which make them useful in a lot of clinical situations. In addition to their effects as anti-anxiety medications, they're also used as sedatives, they're used as anticonvulsant medications, and they have muscle relaxant properties as well.

They work by binding to a receptor which is located on neurons in the brain called the gabor receptor. And gaba is a neurotransmitter in the brain -- it's actually one of the most prevalent inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain. And there are a number of other substances that actually bind to the gabor receptor as well. Most notably things like barbiturate medication, or alcohol.

Benzodiazepines tend to be used either on an as needed basis or on a daily basis for the treatment of multiple different types of anxiety disorders including, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder to name a few.

There are a lot of medications in this family, so it's important to know some of the differences between these medications. Most of these differences stem from differences in the rate of onset of action of the drugs or in the duration of action of the drugs. So for example, alprazolam -- or Xanax -- when taken on a regular basis has a very rapid onset of action and a very brief duration of action on the order of hours, as opposed to clonazepam -- or Klonopin -- which has a fairly rapid onset of action and lasts for much longer, usually on the order of days. So these differences can be important in choosing the right benzodiazepines to treat your particular symptoms.

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