Child Psychiatry Consult

Anxiety disorders: Psychopharmacologic treatment update


Anxiety disorders, including separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, are some of the most common psychiatric conditions of childhood and adolescence, affecting up to 20% of youth.1 Patients commonly present with a mix of symptoms that often span multiple anxiety disorder diagnoses. While this pattern can present somewhat of a diagnostic conundrum, it can be reassuring to know that such constellations of symptoms are the rule rather than the exception. Further, given that both the pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatment strategies don’t change much among the various anxiety disorders, the lack of a definitive single diagnosis should not delay intervention. Be alert to the possibility that anxiety and anxiety disorders can be the engine that drives what on the surface appears to be more disruptive and oppositional behavior.

Although medications can be a useful part of treatment, they are not recommended as a stand-alone intervention. Nonpharmacologic treatments generally should be tried before medications are considered. Among the different types of psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has the most empirical support from research trials, although other modalities such as mindfulness-based treatments show some promise. As anxiety disorders often run in families, it also can be very useful to explore the possibility that one or more parents also struggle with an anxiety disorder, which, if untreated, might complicate the child’s course.


Boy with head in hands, children with rucksacks sitting on the stairs near school

With regard to medications, it is being increasingly appreciated that, despite SSRIs being most popularly known as antidepressants, these medications actually may be as efficacious or even more efficacious in the management of anxiety disorders. This class remains the cornerstone of medication treatment, and a brief review of current options follows.


A 2015 meta-analysis that examined nine randomized controlled trials of SSRIs and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) for pediatric anxiety disorders concluded that these agents provided a benefit of modest effect size. No significant increase in treatment-emergent suicidality was found, and the medications were generally well tolerated.2 This analysis also found some evidence that greater efficacy was related to a medication with more specific serotonergic properties, suggesting improved response with “true” SSRIs versus SNRIs such as venlafaxine and duloxetine. One major study using sertraline found that, at least in the short term, combined use of sertraline with CBT resulted in better efficacy than either treatment alone.3 Dosing of SSRIs should start low: A general rule is to begin at half of the smallest dosage made, depending on the age and size of the patient. One question that often comes up after a successful trial is how long to continue the medications. A recent meta-analysis in adults concluded that there was evidence that stopping medication prior to 1 year resulted in an increased risk of relapse with little to guide clinicians after that 1-year mark.4


Even though benzodiazepines have been around for a long time, data supporting their efficacy and safety in pediatric populations remain extremely limited, and what has been reported has not been particularly positive. Thus, most experts do not suggest using benzodiazepines for anxiety disorders, with the exception of helping children through single or rare events, such as medical procedures or enabling an adolescent who has been fearful of attending school to get to the building on the first day back after a long absence.


In a recent exploratory trial of guanfacine for children with mixed anxiety disorders,5 the medication was well tolerated overall but did not result in statistically significant improvement relative to placebo on primary anxiety rating scales. However, a higher number of children were rated as improved on a clinician-rated scale. This medication is usually started at 0.5 mg/day and increased as tolerated, while checking vital signs, to a maximum of 4 mg/day.


A randomized control trial of pediatric patients with both ADHD and an anxiety disorder showed reductions in both symptom domains with atomoxetine dosed at an average of 1.3 mg/kg per day.6 There is little evidence to suggest its use in primary anxiety disorders without comorbid ADHD.


This 5-hydroxytryptamine 1a agonist has Food and Drug Administration approval for generalized anxiety disorder in adults and is generally well tolerated. Unfortunately, two randomized controlled studies in children and adolescents did not find statistically significant improvement relative to placebo, although some methodological problems may have played a role.7


Although sometimes used to augment an SSRI in adult anxiety disorders, there are little data to support the use of antipsychotics in pediatric populations, especially given the antecedent risks of the drugs.

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