Is Anxiety Medication Making Us Less Empathetic?

In This Article

Is Anxiety Medication Making People Less Empathetic?

Anxiety medication is a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines. They include common brand names such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan. They are usually prescribed for severe anxiety and/or panic disorder. For these afflictions, they can be quite helpful. But at what price?

Anxiety is a normal reaction to many life experiences. Anxiety helped our ancestors navigate the natural world by triggering feelings of “fight or flight” in dangerous situations.

However, many of us don’t face the life-threatening, survival-of-the-fittest type scenarios of our ancestors. Instead, our anxiety pools itself into places where the danger may be imagined, and not real. I know, I have suffered from terrible and panic attacks.

So does lack of anxiety contribute to a hindered ability to react appropriately, or empathetically in dire circumstances?

The Study

A new study from the University of Chicago found that laboratory rates given midazolam (Versed) were less willing than control rats to assist in the release of a cage mate trapped in a plastic tube.

The theory is that the drugged rats were less able to feel the distress of the trapped rat. They were, therefore, less motivated to help. If this were transferred to real life, this might indicate that persons taking anxiety medications may be also less likely to lend a hand in emergency situations.

The study was published June 8, 2016, in the journal Frontiers. In the study, control rats, which were untreated, were quick to open the door to free the trapped cage mate. However, rats injected with midazolam showed no effort to open the door, despite the fact that they could see and hear their comrade trapped inside.

You can view the study in as much detail as you can stand, here.

Of note, when chocolate chips were placed inside the tube, the drugged rats were suddenly able to open the tube. It would appear that the rats just didn’t care about their mate.

Detractors say that its not prudent to draw conclusions about human behavior from rodent studies. In addition, midazolam is more powerful than many of its commonly used counterparts, and is actually often used as a sedative.

Commentary

What can be drawn from this? This information has the potential to shed light on some of the effects of losing our anxious instincts.

Perhaps, for some other options for dealing with anxiety should be explored. I myself have used benzodiazepines in the past, but now currently rely on coping mechanisms and other thought processes to quell anxiety.

That said, I am not necessarily advocating the reduction or elimination of anxiety medication for those who suffer from extreme anxiety or panic disorder. Especially if they are the result of a traumatic event.

I do think, however, that humans since the beginning of time have dealt with anxiety and managed. There are other ways to deal than with just medication alone.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

Related: Eating Disorders and Alcoholism: Why Do They Often Occur Together?

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