Beta-blockers are a class of medication that helps control your body’s fight-or-flight response and reduce its effects on your heart. Many people take beta-blockers to treat heart-related conditions, such as:
Beta-blockers are also called beta-adrenergic blocking agents. They prevent adrenaline — a stress-related hormone — from making contact with your heart’s beta receptors. This prevents adrenaline from making your heart pump harder or faster.
In addition to relaxing your heart, some beta-blockers also relax your blood vessels, which can help to reduce blood pressure.
There are many beta-blockers available, but some of the more common ones include:
- acebutolol (Sectral)
- bisoprolol (Zebeta)
- carvedilol (Coreg)
- propranolol (Inderal)
- atenolol (Tenormin)
- metoprolol (Lopressor)
All beta-blockers used to treat anxiety are prescribed off-label. Propranolol and atenolol are two beta-blockers that are often prescribed to help with anxiety.
Off-label drug useUsing a drug off-label means that a drug has been approved by the FDA for one purpose, and it’s being used for a different purpose that hasn’t been approved. A doctor can still prescribe it for this purpose because the FDA regulates the testing and approval of drugs, not how doctors use them to treat their patients. Your doctor can prescribe a drug off-label if they think it’s best for your care.
Beta-blockers won’t treat the underlying psychological causes of anxiety, but they can help you manage some of your body’s physical reactions to anxiety, such as:
- a fast heart rate
- shaky voice and hands
By decreasing your body’s physical reactions to stress, you may feel less anxious during stressful times.
Beta-blockers work best for managing short-term anxiety about specific events, rather than long-term anxiety. For example, you can take a beta-blocker before giving a public speech if that’s something that makes you feel anxious.
A 2016 review of existing research about using short-term propranolol for treating different anxiety disorders found that its effects were similar to those of benzodiazepines. These are another class of medication that’s often used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. However, benzodiazepines can cause a range of side effects, and some people have a higher risk of becoming dependent on them.
Still, the same review found that beta-blockers weren’t very effective for social phobias.
People respond differently to medications, especially when it comes to treating mental health issues like anxiety. What works for one person may not work at all for someone else. You may also need additional treatment options for your anxiety while taking beta-blockers, to get to the more psychological aspects.
Both atenolol and propranolol come in pill form. The amount you should take depends on both the type of beta-blocker and your medical history. Never take more than what your doctor prescribes.
You’ll likely notice results the first time you take beta-blockers for anxiety, but they can take an hour or two to reach their full effect. During this time, you’ll feel your heart rate decrease, which might make you feel more relaxed.
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor might suggest taking a beta-blocker regularly or just before stressful events. Usually, beta-blockers will be used in combination with other treatments such as therapy, lifestyle changes, and other medications.
Beta-blockers can cause some side effects, especially when you first start taking them.
Possible side effects include:
- cold hands and feet
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- shortness of breath
- vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation
Call your doctor if you experience any more serious side effects, including:
- very slow or irregular heartbeat
- low blood sugar
- an asthma attack
- swelling and fluid retention, along with weight gain
If you notice mild side effects, don’t stop taking the beta-blocker without talking to your doctor first. If you take beta-blockers regularly, you may have serious withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop.
For some people, the side effects of beta-blockers may actually cause anxiety symptoms. You should follow up with your doctor as soon as possible if you feel like taking beta-blockers is increasing your anxiety.
While beta-blockers are generally safe, certain people shouldn’t take them.
Before taking beta-blockers, make sure to tell your doctor if you have:
If you have any of these conditions or symptoms, you may still be able to take beta-blockers, but you’ll need to work with your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits.
Beta-blockers can also interact with other medications used to treat many heart conditions and antidepressants, so make sure you keep your doctor up to date about any medications, supplements, or vitamins you take.
Beta-blockers can be helpful in managing symptoms for some people with anxiety. It’s been shown as a viable treatment option for short-term anxiety, especially before a stressful event. However, beta-blockers aren’t as useful for long-term treatment.
If you’re interested in trying beta-blockers for managing your anxiety, speak with your doctor. They can advise on the best treatment plan for you that will help manage your specific symptoms.