Q. My husband was given Xanax for panic attacks. He has increased his dosage, and I've noticed that he seems to be having problems with his short-term memory. Can Xanax cause memory loss?

Q. My husband was given Xanax for panic attacks. He has increased his dosage, and I’ve noticed that he seems to be having problems with his short-term memory. Can Xanax cause memory loss?

A. Xanax is classified as a benzodiazepine and often referred to as a tranquilizer. Although these medications (including Klonopin, Ativan, and Valium) are excellent for treatment of most anxiety disorders, if one exceeds recommended dosage, there can be serious side effects.

Xanax is a depressant that works on the central nervous system to produce a calming effect; however, when benzodiazepines are taken in increasing amounts, abuse is common. Short-term memory loss is one of the most often reported symptoms. In fact, these medications have been used as “date rape” drugs because they impair function and memory. One patient I treated had sex after too much Xanax and did not remember the incident until someone told her.

If your husband’s Xanax abuse continues or escalates, you may also notice some other symptoms including drowsiness, dizziness, weakness, slurred speech, and lack of coordination. Signs of more acute toxicity include difficulty breathing and coma.

If your husband drinks alcohol, this will intensify the effect of the medication even more. Because both alcohol and Xanax are central nervous system depressants, the combination can be deadly.

Your husband should meet with his physician. There are other medications that can treat panic, and your doctor should discuss those options with him.

Q. My sister, who has panic attacks, almost refuses to leave home. She won’t see a therapist. Is there anything I can do to help her? She won’t talk about her anxiety, but it is ruining her life and possibly her marriage.

A. Your sister is suffering from agoraphobia, which is the fear of having a panic attack in a place where escape is impossible or difficult. This condition usually comes about gradually. One may have a panic episode in the grocery story, and then fear returning there. Then one can go to another store and have a similar experience. Soon, the fear of going virtually anywhere becomes overwhelming.

From your e-mail, I assume that you have done everything possible to convince your sister to seek mental health treatment. Since she has refused to cooperate, there are a few ways you can help her to improve her level of functioning. First, you can provide her with information about agoraphobia. There are many excellent websites such as MayoClinic.com and WebMD that could be beneficial to both of you. Second, you can help her learn some techniques such as controlled breathing and relaxation exercises

that will most likely reduce her panic symptoms. Third, you can volunteer to go with her to the places she fears. Help her to stay in the situation until the panic begins to subside, and it will. Continue to practice the exposure until she is no longer fearful or is able to control her fear.

You say that your sister’s anxiety is ruining her marriage. I am wondering why her husband has not tackled this problem before now. Oftentimes, a spouse will not urge his or her partner to get help because of secondary gain. I treated a woman who had not left home alone for 27 years. Her husband saw no need for therapy because she could not leave home to spend money, be unfaithful, or check on him. Her daughter finally convinced her to get help.

Remember, you are not a psychotherapist. You can help your sister learn behavioral techniques and encourage her to leave home, but your end goal should be to convince her to seek professional help for the underlying problems.

• • •

Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a limited private practice in Pine Bluff. If you have questions pertaining to mental health, e-mail them to drnryburn@gmail.com. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.