A rational approach to the use of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) is outlined. Patients suitable for treatment cannot be classified adequately using conventional diagnostic labels. They include those with primary symptoms of hypochondriasis, agoraphobia and social phobias, irritability, somatic anxiety and anergia; those with primary depressed mood, guilt, ideas of reference and personality disorders seldom respond. There is great variation in the interval between the first administration of these drugs and clinical response, and this may account for the inconsistencies in published trials. The type of drug and its dose may affect rate of response, as may biochemical factors, including acetylator and monoamine oxidase status. To obtain maximum benefit, a course of therapy with MAOIs should last for several months.