Beta blockers are drugs that can be used to treat and manage heart conditions, as well as anxiety disorders. Beta blockers provide some benefits that may make panic attacks easier to cope with and work slightly differently from other medications such as benzodiazepines.
How Beta Blockers Work
Beta blockers work specifically by reducing the actions of the ‘catecholamine’ neurotransmitters. These are neurotransmitters such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). This makes beta blockers an obvious choice, as panic attacks are actually caused by these neurotransmitters. A panic attack is essentially an ‘over the top’ and out-of-context ‘fight or flight response’. Here, a sufferer will experience extreme anxiety to the point where their heart rate increases exponentially (often causing chest pain) and they even begin hyperventilating. This is the same reaction that you might get if you were to come across a lion on the sidewalk, except it is more extreme and often triggered by less obvious stressors.
Beta blockers prevent the action of the fight or flight neurotransmitters specifically by preventing them from binding to the B-adrenergic receptors (to varying degrees).
Effects and Benefits
Using beta blockers for panic attacks are not officially approved by the FDA but have been shown to be effective in a number of trials. Here, they have been able to significantly reduce the symptoms associated with anxiety or stress – such as increased heart rate, hyperventilation and sweating.
As such, many performers such as musicians, public speakers and actors will use beta blockers in order to prevent performance anxiety. They even appear to improve technical performance for some tasks (such as playing instruments). For that reason, they can also be used in sports such as golf and archery where a steady hand is important. Beta blockers are relatively affordable and safe.
Side Effects and Limitations
Beta blockers do carry potential side effects however. These include nausea, diarrhea, abnormal vision, sexual dysfunction, sleep disturbances and more. Side effects are less common in B1-selective beta blockers that don’t target the B2-adrenergic receptors.
Beta blockers are not physically addictive but as with all ‘self-medication’ there is a risk of psychologically dependency (a patient may feel as though the only way they can perform optimally is to use beta blockers for instance). They are also not as effective at stopping a panic attack that is already ‘in progress’ as other options such as benzodiazepines.
At the same time, beta blockers do not address the root cause of the problem. If you are suffering with anxiety disorders, the using beta blockers will not prevent you from having the issues altogether. Therapeutic interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy can therefore provide much longer lasting relief and more extensive benefits.