Hello and welcome back everybody. We are on Week 3 of the Sexual Health and Anxiety Series. At first, we talked with the amazing Lauren Fogel Mersy about sexual anxiety or sexual performance anxiety. And then last week, I went into depth about really understanding arousal and anxiety, how certain things will increase arousal, certain things will decrease it, and teaching you how to get to know what is what so that you can have a rich, intimate, fulfilling life.
We are now on Week 3. I have to admit, this is an episode that I so have wanted to do for quite a while, mainly because I get asked these questions so often and I actually don’t know the answers. It’s actually out of my scope. In clinical terms, we call it “out of my scope of practice,” meaning the topic we’re talking about today is out of my skill set. It’s out of my pay grade. It’s out of my level of training.
What we’re talking about this week is the sexual side effects of antidepressants or anxiety medications, the common ones that people have when they are anxious or depressed. Now, as I said to you, this is a medical topic, one in which I am not trained to talk about, so I invited Dr. Sepehr Aziz onto the episode, and he does such a beautiful job, a respectful, kind, compassionate approach to addressing sexual side effects of anxiety medication, sexual side effects of depression medication. It’s just beautiful. It’s just so beautiful. I feel like I want to almost hand this episode off to every patient when I first start treating them, because I think so often when we’re either on medication or we’re considering medication, this is a really common concern, one in which people often aren’t game to discuss. So, here we are. I’m actually going to leave it right to the doctor, leave it to the pro to talk all about sexual side effects and what you can do, and how you may discuss this with your medical provider. Let’s do it.
Kimberley: Welcome. I have been wanting to do this interview for so long. I am so excited to have with us Dr. Sepehr Aziz. Thank you so much for being here with us today.
Dr. Aziz: Thanks for having me.
Kimberley: Okay. I have so many questions we’re going to get through as much as we can. Before we get started, just tell us a little about you and your background, and tell us what you want to tell us.
Dr. Aziz: Sure. Again, I’m Dr. Sepehr Aziz. I go by “Shepherd,” so you can go ahead and call me Shep if you’d like. I’m a psychiatrist. I’m board certified in general adult psychiatry as well as child and adolescent psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. I completed medical school and did my residency in UMass where they originally developed mindfulness-based CBT and MBSR. And then I completed my Child and Adolescent training at UCSF. I’ve been working since then at USC as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry there. I see a lot of OCD patients. I do specialize in anxiety disorders and ADHD as well.
Kimberley: Which is why you’re the perfect person for this job today.
Dr. Aziz: Thank you.
Kimberley: I thank you so much for being here. I want to get straight into the big questions that I get asked so regularly and I don’t feel qualified to answer myself. What are the best medications for people with anxiety and OCD? Is there a general go-to? Can you give me some explanation on that?
Dr. Aziz: As part of my practice, I first and foremost always try to let patients know that the best treatment is always a combination of therapy as well as medications. It’s really important to pursue therapy because medications can treat things and they can make it easier to tolerate your anxiety, but ultimately, in order to have sustained change, you really want to have therapy as well. Now, the first-line medications for anxiety and OCD are the same, and that’s SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. SNRIs, which are selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, also work generally, but the best research that we have in the literature is on SSRIs, and that’s why they’re usually preferred first. There are other medications that also might work, but these are usually first-line, as we call it. There are no specific SSRIs that might work better. We’ve tried some head-to-head trials sometimes, but there’s no one medication that works better than others. It’s just tailored depending on the patient and the different side effects of the medication.
Kimberley: Right. Just so people are clear in SSRI, a lot of people, and I notice, use the term antidepressant. Are they synonymous or are they different?
Dr. Aziz: Originally, they were called antidepressants when they first were released because that was the indication. There was an epidemic of depression and we were really badly looking for medications that would work. Started out with tricyclic antidepressants and then we had MAOIs, and then eventually, we developed SSRIs. These all fall under antidepressant treatments. However, later on, we realized that they work very well for anxiety in addition to depression. Actually, in my opinion, they work better for anxiety than they do for depression. I generally shy away from referring to them as antidepressants just to reduce the stigma around them a little bit and also to be more accurate in the way that I talk about them. But yes, they’re synonymous, you could say.
Kimberley: Sure. Thank you for clearing that up because that’s a question I often get. I know I led you in a direction away but you answered. What is the best medication for people with depression then? Is it those SSRIs or would you go--
Dr. Aziz: Again, these are first-line medications, which means it’s the first medication we would try if we’re starting medication, which is SSRIs. Other medications might also work like SNRIs again. For depression specifically, there are medications called serotonin modulators that are also effective such as vortioxetine or nefazodone, or vilazodone. But SSRIs are generally what people reach for first just because they’ve been around for a long time, they’re available generic, they work, and there’s no evidence that the newer medications or modulators work better. They’re usually first line.
Kimberley: Fantastic. Now you brought up the term “generic” and I think that that’s an important topic because the cost of therapy is high. A lot of people may be wondering, is the generic as good as the non-generic options?
Dr. Aziz: It really depends on the medication and it also depends on which country you’re in. In the US, we have pretty strict laws as to how closely a generic has to be to a regular medication, a brand name medication, and there’s a margin of error that they allow. The margin of error for generics is, I believe, a little bit higher than for the brand name. However, most of the time, it’s pretty close. For something like Lexapro, I usually don’t have any pressure on myself to prescribe the brand name over the generic. For something like other medications we use in psychiatry that might have a specific way that the brand name is released, a non-anxiety example is Concerta, which is for ADHD.
This medication uses an osmotic release mechanism and that’s proprietary. They license it out to one generic company, but that license is expiring. All those patients who are on that generic in the next month or two are going to notice a difference in the way that the medication is released. Unless you’re a physician privy to that information, you might not even know that that’s going to happen. That’s where you see a big change. Otherwise, for most of the antidepressants, I haven’t noticed a big difference between generic and brand names.
Kimberley: Right. Super helpful. Now you mentioned it depends on the person. How might one decide or who does decide what medication they would go on?
Dr. Aziz: It’s really something that needs to be discussed between the person and their psychiatrist. There are a number of variables that go into that, such as what’s worked in a family member in the past, because there are genetic factors in hepatic metabolism and things like that that give us some clue as to what might work. Or sometimes if I have a patient with co-occurring ADHD and I know they’re going to be missing their medications a lot, I’m more likely to prescribe them Prozac because it has a longer half-life, so it’ll last longer. If they miss a dose or two, it’s not as big of a deal. If I have a patient who’s very nervous about getting off of the medication when they get pregnant, I would avoid Prozac because it has a long half-life and it would take longer to come off of the medication. Some medications like Prozac and Zoloft are more likely to cause insomnia or agitation in younger people, so I’ll take that into consideration. Some medications have a higher likelihood of causing weight loss versus weight gain. These are all things that would take into consideration in order to tailor it to the specific patient.
Kimberley: Right. I think that’s been my experience too. They will usually ask, do you have a sibling or a parent that tried a certain medication, and was that helpful? I love that question. I think it informs a lot of decisions. We’re here really. The main goal of today is really to talk about one particular set of side effects, which is the sexual side effects of medication. In fact, I think most commonly with clients of mine, that tends to be the first thing they’re afraid of having to happen. How common are sexual side effects? Is it in fact all hype or is it something that is actually a concern? How would you explain the prevalence of the side effects?
Dr. Aziz: This is a really important topic, I just want to say, because it is something that I feel is neglected when patients are talking to physicians, and that’s just because it can be uncomfortable to talk about these things sometimes, both for physicians and for patients. Oftentimes, it’s avoided almost. But because of that, we don’t know for sure exactly what the incidence rate is. The literature on this and the research on this is not very accurate for a number of reasons. There are limitations. The range is somewhere between 15 to 80% and the best estimate is about 50%. But I don’t even like saying that because it really depends on age, gender, what other co-occurring disorders they have such as depression. Unipolar depression can also cause sexual dysfunction. They don’t always take that into account in these studies. A lot of the studies don’t ask baseline sexual function before asking if there’s dysfunction after starting a medication, so it’s hard to tell. What I can say for sure, and this is what I tell my patients, is that this sexual dysfunction is the number one reason why people stop taking the medication, because of adverse effects.
Kimberley: Right. It’s interesting you say that we actually don’t know, and it is true. I’ve had clients say having anxiety has sexual side effects too, having depression has sexual side effects too, and they’re weighing the pros and cons of going on medication comparative to when you’re depressed, you may not have any sexual drive as well. Are some medications more prone to these sexual side effects? Does that help inform your decision on what you prescribe because of certain meds?
Dr. Aziz: Yeah. I mean, the SSRIs specifically are the ones that are most likely to cause sexual side effects. Technically, it’s the tricyclics, but no one really prescribes those in high doses anymore. It’s very rare. They’re the number one. But in terms of the more commonly prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications among the SSRIs and the SNRIs and the things like bupropion and the serotonin modulators we talked about, the SSRIs are most likely to cause sexual dysfunction.
Kimberley: Right. Forgive me for my lack of knowledge here, I just want to make sure I’m understanding this. What about the medications like Xanax and the more panic-related medications? Is that underneath this category? Can you just explain that to me?
Dr. Aziz: I don’t usually include those in this category. Those medications work for anxiety technically, but in current standard practice, we don’t start them as an initial medication for anxiety disorders because there’s a physical dependency that can occur and then it becomes hard to come off of the medication. They’re used more for panic as an episodic abortive medication when someone is in the middle of a panic attack, or in certain cases of anxiety that’s not responding well to more conventional treatment, we’ll start it. We’ll start it on top of or instead of those medications. They can cause sexual side effects, but it’s not the same and it’s much less likely.
Kimberley: Okay. Very helpful. Is it the same? I know you said we don’t have a lot of data, and I think that’s true because of the stigma around reporting sexual side effects, or even just talking about sex in general. Do we have any data on whether it impacts men more than women?
Dr. Aziz: The data shows that women report more sexual side effects, but we believe that’s because women are more likely to be treated with SSRIs. When we’re looking at the per capita, we don’t have good numbers in terms of that. In my own practice, I’d say it’s pretty equal. I feel like men might complain about it more, but again, I’m a man and so it might just be a comfort thing of reporting it to me versus not reporting. Although I try to be good about asking before and after I start medication, which is very important to do. But again, it doesn’t happen all the time.
Kimberley: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because from my experience as a clinician, not a psychiatrist, and this is very anecdotal, I’ve heard men because of not the stigma, but the pressure to have a full erection and to be very hard, that there’s a certain masculinity that’s very much vulnerable when they have sexual side effects—I’ve heard that to be very distressing. In my experience. I’ve had women be really disappointed in the sexual side effects, but I didn’t feel that... I mean, that’s not really entirely true because I think there’s shame on both ends. Do you notice that the expectations on gender impacts how much people report or the distress that they have about the sexual side effects?
Dr. Aziz: Definitely. I think, like you said, men feel more shame when it comes to sexual side effects. For women, it’s more annoyance. We haven’t really talked about what the sexual side effects are, but that also differs between the sexes. Something that’s the same between sexes, it takes longer to achieve orgasm or climax. In some cases, you can’t. For men, it can cause erectile dysfunction or low libido. For women, it can also cause low libido or lack of lubrication, which can also lead to pain on penetration or pain when you’re having sex. These are differences between the sexes that can cause different reporting and different feelings, really.
Kimberley: Right. That’s interesting that it’s showing up in that. It really sounds like it impacts all the areas of sexual playfulness and sexual activity, the arousal, the lubrication. That’s true for men too, by the sounds of it. Is that correct?
Dr. Aziz: Yeah.
Kimberley: We’ve already done one episode about the sexual performance anxiety, and I’m sure it probably adds to performance anxiety when that’s not going well as well, correct?
Dr. Aziz: It’s interesting because in my practice, when I identify that someone is having sexual performance anxiety or I feel like somebody, especially people with anxiety disorders, if I feel like they have vulvodynia, which means pain on penetration—if I see they have vulvodynia and I feel that this is because of the anxiety, oftentimes the SSRI might improve that and cause greater satisfaction from sex. It’s a double-edged sword here.
Kimberley: Yeah. Can you tell me a little more about What symptoms are they having? The pain? What was it called again?
Dr. Aziz: Vulvodynia.
Kimberley: Is that for men and women? Just for women, I’m assuming.
Dr. Aziz: Just from vulva, it is referring to the outside of the female genitalia. Especially when you have a lack of lubrication or sometimes the muscles, everyone with anxiety knows sometimes you have muscle tension and there are a lot of complex muscles in the pelvic floor. Sometimes this can cause pain when you’re having sex. There are different ways to address that, but SSRIs sometimes can improve that.
Kimberley: Wow. It can improve it, and sometimes it can create a side effect as well, and it’s just a matter of trial and error, would you say?
Dr. Aziz: It’s a delicate balance because these side effects are also dose-dependent. It’s not like black or white. I start someone on 5 milligrams, which is a child’s dose of Lexapro. Either they have sexual side effects or don’t. They might not have it on 5, and then they might have it a little bit on 10, and then they get to 20 and they’re like, “Doctor, I can’t have orgasms anymore.” We try to find the balance between improving the anxiety and avoiding side effects.
Kimberley: You’re going right into the big question, which is, when someone does have side effects, is it the first line of response to look at the dose? Or how would you handle a case if someone came to you first and said, “I’m having sexual side effects, what can we do?”
Dr. Aziz: Again, I’m really thorough personally. Before I even seem to start a medication, I’ll ask about libido and erectile dysfunction and ability to climax and things like that, so I have a baseline. That’s important when you are thinking about making a change to someone’s medications. The other thing that’s important is, is the medication working for them? If they haven’t seen a big difference since they started the medication, I might change the medication. If they’ve seen an improvement, now there’s a pressure on me to keep the medication on because it’s working and helping. I might augment it with a second medication that’ll help reverse the sexual side effects or I might think about reducing the dose a little bit while maintaining somewhere in the therapeutic zone of doses or I might recommend, and I always recommend non-pharmacological ways of addressing sexual side effects. You always do that at baseline.
Kimberley: What would that be?
Dr. Aziz: There’s watchful waiting. Sometimes if you just wait and give it some time, these symptoms can get better. I’m a little more active than that. I’ll say it’s not just waiting, but it’s waiting and practicing, whether that’s solo practice or with your partner. Sometimes planning sex helps, especially if you have low libido. There’s something about the anticipation that can make someone more excited. The use of different aids for sex such as toys, vibrators, or pornography, whether that’s pornographic novels or imagery, can sometimes help with the libido issues and also improve satisfaction for both partners. The other thing which doesn’t have great research, but there is a small research study on this, and not a lot of people know about this, but if you exercise about an hour before sex, you’re more likely to achieve climax. This was specifically studied in people with SSRI-related anorgasmia.
Kimberley: Interesting. I’m assuming too, like lubricants, oils, and things like that as well, or?
Dr. Aziz: For lubrication issues, yes. Lubricants, oils, and again, you really have to give people psychoeducation on which ones they have to use, which ones they have to avoid, which ones interact with condoms, and which ones don’t. But you would recommend those as well.
Kimberley: Is it a normal practice to also refer for sex therapy? If the medication is helping their symptoms, depression, anxiety, OCD, would you ever refer to sex therapy to help with that? Is that a standard practice or is that for specific diagnoses, like you said, with the pain around the vulva and so forth?
Dr. Aziz: Absolutely. A lot of the things I just talked about are part of sex therapy and they’re part of the sexual education that you would receive when you go to a sex therapist. I happen to be comfortable talking about these things, and I’ve experienced talking about it. When I write my notes, that would fall under me doing therapy. But a lot of psychiatrists would refer to a sex therapist. Hopefully, there are some in the town nearby where someone is. It’s sometimes hard to find someone that specializes in that.
Kimberley: Is there some pushback with that? I mean, I know when I’ve had patients and they’re having some sexual dysfunction and they do have some pushback that they feel a lot of shame around using vibrators or toys. Do you notice a more willingness to try that because they want to stay on the meds? Or is it still very difficult for them to consider trying these additional things? Are they more likely to just say, “No, the meds are the problem, I want to go off the medication”?
Dr. Aziz: It really depends on the patient. In my population that I see, I work at USC on campus, so I only see university students in my USC practice. My age group is like 18 to 40. Generally, people are pretty receptive. Obviously, it’s very delicate to speak to some people who have undergone sexual trauma in the past. Again, since I’m a man, sometimes speaking to a woman who’s had sexual trauma can be triggering. It’s a very delicate way that you have to speak and sometimes there’s some pushback or resistance. It can really be bad for the patient because they’re having a problem and they’re uncomfortable talking about it. There might be a shortage of female psychiatrists for me to refer to. We see that. There’s also a portion of the population that’s just generally uncomfortable with this, especially people who are more religious might be uncomfortable talking about this and you have to approach that from a certain angle. I happen to also be specialized in cultural psychiatry, so I deal with these things a lot, approaching things from a very specific cultural approach, culturally informative approach. Definitely, you see resistance in many populations.
Kimberley: I think that that’s so true. One thing I want to ask you, which I probably should have asked you before, is what would you say to the person who wants to try meds but is afraid of the potential of side effects? Is there a certain spiel or way in which you educate them to help them understand the risks or the benefits? How do you go about that for those who there’s no sexual side effects, they’re just afraid of the possibility?
Dr. Aziz: As part of my practice, I give as much informed consent to my patients as I can. I let them know what might happen and how that’s going to look afterwards. Once it happens, what would we do about it if it happened? A lot of times, especially patients with anxiety, you catastrophize and you feel this fear of some potential bad thing happening, and you never go past that. You never ask yourself, okay, well now let’s imagine that happens. What happens next? I tell my patients, “Yeah, you might have sexual dysfunction, but if that happens, we can reduce the medications or stop them and they’ll go away.” I also have to tell my patients that if they search the internet, there are many people who have sexual side effects, which didn’t go away, and who are very upset about it. This is something that is talked about on Reddit, on Twitter. When my patients go to Dr. Google and do their research, they often get really scared. “Doctor, what if this happens and it doesn’t go away?” I always try to explain to them, I have hundreds of patients that I’ve treated with these medications. In my practice, that’s never happened. As far as I know from the literature, there are no studies that show that there are permanent dysfunctions sexually because of SSRIs.
Now, like I said, the research is not complete, but everything that I’ve read has been anecdotal. My feeling is that if you address these things in the beginning and you’re diligent in asking about the side effects of baseline sexual function beforehand and you are comfortable talking with your patients about it, you can avoid this completely. That’s been my experience. When I explain that to my patients, they feel like I have their back, like they’re protected, like I’m not just going to let them fall through the cracks. That has worked for me very well.
Kimberley: Right. It sounds like you give them some hope too, that this can be a positive experience, that this could be a great next step.
Dr. Aziz: Yeah, absolutely.
Kimberley: Thank you for bringing up Dr. Google, because referring to Reddit for anything psychologically related is not a great idea, I will say. Definitely, when it comes to medications, I think another thing that I see a lot that’s interesting on social media is I often will get dozens of questions saying, “I heard such and such works. Have your clients taken this medication? I heard this medication doesn’t work. What’s your experience?” Or if I’ve told them about my own personal experience, they want to know all about it because that will help inform their decision. Would you agree, do not get your information from social media or online at all?
Dr. Aziz: I have patients who come to me and they’re like, “My friend took Lexapro and said it was the worst thing in the world, and it may or not feel any emotions.” I’m explaining to them, I literally have hundreds of patients, hundreds that I prescribe this to, and I go up and down on the dose. I talk to them about their intimate lives all day. But for some reason, and it makes sense, the word of their friend or someone close to them, really, carries a lot of weight. Also, I don’t want to discount Reddit either, because I feel like it’s as a support system and as a support group. I find other people who have gone through what you’ve gone through. It’s very strong. Even pages like-- I don’t want to say the page, but there’s a page that’s against psychiatry, and I peruse this page a lot because I have my own qualms about psychiatry sometimes. I know the pharmaceutical companies have a certain pressure on themselves financially, and I know hospitals have a certain pressure on themselves. I get it. I go on the page and there’s a lot of people who have been hurt in the past, and it’s useful for patients to see other people who share that feeling and to get support. But at the same time, it’s important to find providers that you can trust and to have strong critical thinking skills, and be able to advocate for yourself while still listening to somebody who might have more information than you.
Kimberley: I’m so grateful you mentioned that. I do think that that is true. I think it’s also what I try to remember when I am online. The people who haven’t had a bad experience aren’t posting on Reddit. They’re out having a great time because it helped, the medication helped them, and they just want to move on. I really respect those who have a bad experience. They feel the need to educate. But I don’t think it’s that 50% who gave a great experience are on Reddit either. Would you agree?
Dr. Aziz: Right. Yeah. The people who are having great outcomes are not creating a Reddit page to go talk about it, right?
Kimberley: Yeah. Thank you so much for answering all my questions. Is there a general message that you want to give? Maybe it’s even saying it once over on something you’ve said before. What would be your final message for people who are listening?
Dr. Aziz: I just want to say that when SSRI’s impact your sex life, it’s really important for psychiatry, and especially in therapy, that you feel comfortable sharing your experiences in that room. It should be a safe space where you feel comfortable talking about your feelings at home and what’s going on in your intimate life and how things are affecting you. Your feelings, positive or negative towards your therapist or your psychiatrist, whether things they said made you uncomfortable, whether you feel they’re avoiding something, that room should be a safe space for you to be as open as possible. When you are as open as possible, that’s when you’re going to get the best care because your provider, especially in mental health, needs to know the whole picture of what’s going on in your life. Oftentimes, we are just as uncomfortable as you. And so, again, a lot of providers might avoid it because they’re afraid of offending you by asking about your orgasms. As a patient, you take the initiative and you bring it up. It’s going to improve your care. Try not to be afraid of bringing these things up. If you do feel uncomfortable for any reason, always let your provider know.
I always tell my patients, I have a therapist. I pay a lot of money to see my therapist, and sometimes I tell him things I hate about him. He’s a great therapist. He’s psychoanalytic. Every time I bring something up, he brings it back to something about my dad. He’s way older than me. But he’s a great therapist. Every time I’ve brought something like that up, it’s been a breakthrough for me because that feeling means something. That would be my main message to everyone listening.
Kimberley: Thank you. I’m so grateful for your time and your expertise. Really, thank you. Can you tell us where people can get in touch with you, seek out your services, read more about you?
Dr. Aziz: Sure. I work for OCD SoCal. I’m on the executive board, and that’s the main way I like to communicate with people who see me on programs like this. You can always email me at S, like my first name, Aziz, that’s A-Z-I-Z, @OCDSoCal.org. If you’re a USC student, you can call Student Health and request to see me at the PBHS clinic. That’s the Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Services clinic on campus at USC.
Kimberley: They’re lucky to have you.
Dr. Aziz: Thank you.
Kimberley: Yes. I love that you’re there. Thank you so much for all of your expertise. I am so grateful. This has been so helpful.