Beta Blockers and Anxiety: Benefits and Side Effects
Beta blockers reduce the effects of adrenaline in the body and today, many people are prescribed beta
blockers to help with anxiety.
In times of stress and emergency the adrenal gland produces adrenaline (a stress hormone) that acts on various organs in the body to enable us to deal with the
situation. For example, the heart beats faster due to adrenaline.
In order for adrenaline to be able to do this various organs have receptors (known as beta receptors) to accept the adrenaline and use it to behave differently in times of stress.
Beta blockers block these receptors. They stop various organs in the body (depending on the beta blocker used) from
Originally beta blockers such as Propranolol (Inderal) were developed for people with heart
problems. Taking them means the heart does less work generally and doesn't get over-worked in times of stress. A necessity
for people with a weak heart or recovering from a heart attack.
Now, because of this action, beta blockers have become widely prescribed for anxiety problems.
One of the main symptoms of anxiety is a speeding heart which is part of the fight-or-flight response. In times of danger our body produces adrenaline to make the heart beat faster to get
blood and oxygen (fuel) to our major muscles (arms, chest and legs) more quickly to enable us to fight or flee.
Stopping the heart from beating faster makes us feel calmer.
Taking beta blockers for anxiety also makes us feel less shaky. The energy boost to our muscles (from the increased supply of blood and oxygen) which makes us feel 'jittery'
and 'on-edge' doesn't happen without a fast heartbeat.
These two benefits often mean that beta blockers are also used for performance anxiety.
Beta Blockers and Performance Anxiety
Many performers experience anxiety whilst performing. In one study around 20% of the musicians taking part experienced marked
distress during performances. (1)
Most performers cope without drugs but many take beta blockers (usually Inderal), often illegally, to deal with stage
Musicians, actors and sportsmen use them to help with steadiness, concentration and to reduce nervousness when performing.
However, while beta blockers do help to reduce stage fright, many people believe that some nervousness is necessary to
perform at the highest level.
With these obvious benefits, it may seem that beta blockers are the ideal solution for anxiety.
... But it is not as simple as this.
Although they aren't physically addictive (as tranquilizers can be) they can soon become psychologically addictive. And we can quickly come to feel that we cannot do anything before
taking a tablet.
Also, beta blockers only block the adrenaline – they don't stop it. And the question remains as to what happens to the adrenaline our body produces.
Perhaps more importantly, long-term usage of beta blockers can alter the natural function of the heart and stopping this medication without medical supervision can be very dangerous. This
may be a necessary risk if the alternative is a heart attack... but to deal with anxiety?
There are also many other side effects of taking beta blockers.
Beta Blockers Side Effects
1. Weight Gain:
Beta blockers and weight gain is extremely common. We all need a certain amount of adrenaline and the natural boost it gives to our organs to be active. Perhaps blocking
adrenaline leads to a more 'sluggish' system and weight gain.
For the same reason. Blocking 'everyday' adrenaline along with any excess produced robs us of energy.
Again, we need adrenaline to be vibrant and active.
4. Impotence in Men and Loss of Libido in Women:
No adrenaline = no vibrancy.
5. Blurred vision:
Another fight-or-flight response in times of anxiety is sharpness of vision. We become able to see things more clearly in order to see any danger coming. Our eyes also have beta
6. Feeling Faint and Dizzyness:
This is caused by a slow heartbeat.
7. Other side effects include: diarrhoea and nausea, cold hands and feet, sleep disturbance.
It is important to realise that beta blockers are not a cure for anxiety
problems. They dampen some of the symptoms but do not deal with the underlying reason for the anxiety.
As a temporary relief for dealing with stressful events, the short-term usage of beta blockers
may be beneficial. But for using beta blockers long-term to deal with anxiety problems... the risks may outweigh the
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1. Wesner R.B., Noyes Jr. R., Davis T.L.,(1990) The occurence of performance anxiety among musicians. Journal of
Affective Disorders, 18, 3, 177–185