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Beta blockers are drugs known for treating high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, and angina. But no matter why you may be taking them, beta blockers always work the same way. That is, they block a hormone known as epinephrine, better known as adrenalin. This is the same hormone that floods our bodies during times of anxiety and stress. Epinephrine gives you the boost of energy you need to fight off or run away from an attack, so it makes sense that scary situations trigger its release. That’s why the use of beta blockers for anxiety makes sense.
In the modern world, of course, we face sources of anxiety and stress that are more subtle and long-term—as opposed to the stress of escaping a predator. You may be dealing with a critical boss or financial concerns or marital problems. In these cases, epinephrine—instead of helping you to escape or to fight an immediate danger—contributes to burnout, high blood pressure, and other problems associated with anxiety and stress.
That’s where beta blockers come in. These drugs block the effects of epinephrine; in doing so, they block symptoms of anxiety attack—the raised blood pressure, palpitations, sweating, shaking, trembling, blushing, and other symptoms that go along with feeling anxious.
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How Beta Blockers Work
Beta blockers for anxiety are not usually the first drug that doctors prescribe when treating stress, but they’re particularly beneficial for some types. If you know that certain situations cause you intense anxiety but you need to put yourself in those situations in order to do your job or even live a normal life, beta blockers for anxiety can be extremely helpful.
For instance, some performers may take a beta blocker before a show in order to combat stage fright. If you have a specific phobia to something like driving a car or stepping into an elevator, taking beta blockers before doing so can be extremely helpful.
People with social anxiety disorder may also get relief from a beta blocker before entering situations in which they have to interact with other people.
A nice thing about beta blockers is that when you face your fear, whatever it is, without having the physical symptoms you normally associate with fear, eventually that fear often diminishes or even goes away all together. Because of this, beta blockers can be beneficial in combination with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) in order to help people overcome specific fears and phobias. This involves facing those fears incrementally over and over again, using both beta blockers and calming strategies to diminish your fear, until the fear becomes manageable or even goes away all together.
So, for instance, if you’re afraid of spiders, you can gradually expose yourself to them, starting by looking at a photo of a spider, then looking at a spider in a jar, then a spider across the room, and finally having a spider in your hand. All the while, you would control your fear using beta blockers and techniques used in CBT, such as deep breathing, to minimize your fear. Doing this, you can eventually teach your brain to no longer fear spiders.
Side Effects of Beta Blockers for Anxiety
While beta blockers are safe for most people, they may not be right for you if you suffer from asthma or other lung diseases, certain heart conditions, or diabetes, or if you’re pregnant. While these drugs are generally well-tolerated, they may make you feel dizzy or sleepy, affect your sleep, or make your hands and feet more likely to feel cold.
If you think beta blockers might be able to help you with your anxiety or stress, talk to your health care professional.
Originally published in March 2016 and updated.