Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults aged 18 and older in the U.S., or 19.1% of the population every year, making it the most common mental illness.
Also, even though anxiety disorders are highly treatable, as little as 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
Beta-blockers are a class of medication that can help control your body’s fight-or-flight response.
While they are primarily prescribed to treat heart conditions such as high blood pressure (hypertension), heart failure, and irregular heart rates, they are also an effective treatment for anxiety symptoms.
What Are Beta-Blockers?
Beta-blockers are a class of drugs prescribed by healthcare professionals primarily to treat heart conditions such as hypertension.
Your doctor may prescribe any of the following beta-blockers to you for the treatment of anxiety:
- Atenolol (Tenormin)
- Propranolol (Inderal)
All beta-blockers used to treat anxiety are prescribed off-label, meaning that the drugs have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a purpose, but your doctor may prescribe them for another label use that is not FDA-approved.
Propranolol and atenolol are two of the most common beta-blockers that are prescribed to help relieve anxiety.
How Beta-Blockers Work
As their name implies, beta-blockers, also known as beta-adrenergic blocking agents, work by blocking the effects of epinephrine and preventing adrenaline — a stress-related hormone — from making contact with your heart’s beta receptors.
Your heart then beats more slowly and pumps with less force. And because your heart no longer has to work as hard, your blood pressure lowers.
Additionally, beta-blockers relax your blood vessels through vasodilation.
Your heart can then pump blood more efficiently into the relaxed blood vessels.
The physiological response can reduce anxiety-related symptoms.
Do Beta-Blockers Help Anxiety?
Beta-blockers won’t be able to treat the underlying psychological cause of anxiety.
However, they can manage your body’s stress response.
They can help relieve the following physical symptoms of anxiety such as:
For those who suffer performance anxiety in situations such as public speaking or performing in front of a crowd, beta-blockers can be highly effective in calming you down.
They generally work best for managing short-term anxiety rather than long-term anxiety.
Beta-blockers can cause some side effects when you first start taking them.
It is important that you give your body time to adjust to the medicine.
Avoid alcohol altogether for the first few days and monitor any side effects you experience.
Common side effects of beta-blockers include:
- Cold hands and feet (the medication can affect the blood supply to your hands and feet)
- Dizziness or lightheadedness (often due to a slower heart rate)
- Vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation
More serious side effects include:
- An asthma attack
- Shortness of breath
- Swollen ankles or legs
- Chest pain
- Yellow skin or the whites of your eyes turn yellow
- Fluid retention or weight gain
Beta-blockers work differently than most traditional medications for anxiety relief.
Some of their benefits are:
- They are fast-acting, offering rapid relief for people experiencing anxiety attacks.
- They can help lower blood pressure and heart rate, relieving physical symptoms that can worsen anxiety.
- They may be an effective option for people suffering from anxiety disorder and high blood pressure or other heart health problems as they can simultaneously treat these conditions.
- They can be an effective alternative for people who have tried other anti-anxiety medications that did not offer relief or produced intolerable side effects.
- They can help relieve anxiety in people who have to give public speeches or other performances.
Before taking beta-blockers for anxiety, you should consult with a healthcare professional about your medical history, symptoms, and other medications you are taking.
While they are generally safe, some people should not take them.
Tell your doctor if you have any of the following:
- Low blood sugar
- Final stage heart failure
- Very low blood pressure
- Very slow heart rate
To avoid negative drug interactions, tell your doctor if you are taking any of the following:
- Any medications for heart problems
- Rifampicin (rifampin)
- Psychotropic drugs
Other Treatment Options for Anxiety
There are several anti-anxiety medications available to alleviate symptoms of anxiety.
Benzodiazepines are a popular class of drugs prescribed for treating Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Their exact mechanism of action is unknown, but they are believed to work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain, causing them to reduce the activity of certain hyperactive nerves in the brain and spinal cord.
A class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can also be prescribed for anxiety. SSRIs work by boosting and rebalancing the amount of serotonin in your body at one time.
Your doctor will know the best treatment for you as beta-blockers or the other options mentioned here might not be the best treatment for you.
When to See a Medical Provider
When taking beta-blockers, it is important that you follow the instructions given by your healthcare provider.
You should not stop the medication without first consulting with your doctor.
You should see a medical provider if you experience any of the following less common side effects such as:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
Suddenly stopping beta-blockers may cause life-threatening health issues, such as a thyroid storm, in people with hyperthyroidism.
A thyroid storm is a condition where the body struggles to regulate many systems, making it a medical emergency.
You should never stop taking your medication without speaking with your doctor first.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Anxiety Disorders - Facts & Statistics. (2022).
Beta-blockers in anxiety disorders. (1987).
Beta-blocking drugs and anxiety. A proven therapeutic value. (1991).