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Beta Blockers and Anxiety: Treatment and Side Effects

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over a rather interesting treatment for anxiety, the use of beta-blockers, which are medications meant for a completely different purpose. You'll learn how and when they're used and what their side effects are.

Anxiety

Imagine you're a professional musician making a full-time living off of playing the piano. But you suffer from stage fright, more properly called performance anxiety. Your heart races and your arms shake. You can barely perform. The next thing you know, you're fired. That's bad news.

It turns out that some forms of mild anxiety, including performance anxiety, might be treated with something somewhat unexpected: medications called beta-blockers.

Why Use Beta Blockers for Treatment?

Beta blockers are medications that are more commonly used to treat things like high blood pressure, chest pain, and numerous different heart conditions. In essence, a beta blocker is a cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) medication.

So what in the world do heart medications have to do with anxiety, which stems from a mental and emotional state of mind?

Well, while a person's anxiety may arise from the way their mind reacts to something, their reaction ultimately involves some sort of physiological and physical features. For example, think back to the last time you had anxiety from giving a speech in front of class. What happened? Your heart raced, your arms trembled, and you may have begun to sweat.

And you know what else probably happened? You clearly noticed all of these signs and got even more worried as a result of them. You got anxious. You noticed you were trembling. You got even more anxious because of that. You started to tremble even more as a result. And so, anxiety breeds more anxiety in a vicious loop.

This is where beta blockers come in. They help minimize some of these physiological and physical manifestations of anxiety. This means you perceive fewer signs and symptoms of anxiety. In effect, you are sort of tricked into believing you're not as anxious as you once were since you can't see nor feel as many signs of anxiety as before. This, of course, helps you feel less anxious.

Some beta blockers used to this effect are called propranolol and atenolol. They are typically used in mild cases of anxiety and in relatively low doses in people healthy enough to use them, especially in people for whom other anti-anxiety medications have failed.

Thus, beta blockers aren't the most common class of drugs used to treat a person's anxiety but they are a potential treatment option in limited cases. For some people, the beta blockers are given long-term while others only take them as needed, such as right before a concert in our introductory example.

Side Effects

Of course, every medication has its side effects. Potential side effects of beta blockers as a whole (not any one specific kind) include:

  • Shortness of breath, especially in people with pre-existing lung conditions
  • Problems sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Cold extremities (hand and feet)
  • Depression

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