Do Beta Blockers Really Make Things ‘A Breeze’ Like Robert Downey Jr. Said?

This past weekend, Robert Downey Jr. did two things: He won Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture at the Golden Globes for his role in ”Oppenheimer,” and he gave a cheeky public shoutout to a medication: beta blockers.

While the blood pressure medication has been around forever, the actor’s mention of the drug prompted many to realize that beta blockers might also be used for other medical necessities ― particularly anxiety, which Downey Jr. alluded to in his speech. It was reported that Google searches for “what’s a beta blocker” and “beta blockers for anxiety” increased after the Golden Globes aired.

Dr. Mirela Loftus, the medical director at Newport Healthcare in Connecticut, explained that beta blockers are a class of medication that basically impede the effects of adrenaline on a body’s receptors.

“By inhibiting the action of adrenaline, beta blockers help reduce the heart rate, lower blood pressure and decrease the workload on the heart,” she said. “This makes them useful in managing conditions such as hypertension, chest pains and certain cardiovascular disorders.

Even more specifically, there are two types of beta blockers: cardioselective and non-selective. The former targets receptors in the heart while the latter affects both heart sensors and others found across distinct tissues, including the lungs. Each category of drug can be prescribed by a health care professional.

Can beta blockers be used for stress or anxiety?

Beta blockers are sometimes used to manage anxiety. According to Loftus, that’s actually because of their relationship with adrenaline.

“Anxiety often involves an overactive sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the common ‘fight of flight’ response,” she said. “Adrenaline is a key player in this response, and it activates beta blockers.”

Basically, high levels of anxiety are linked to increased adrenaline numbers and the beta blockers are able to cancel out the effects of adrenaline, indirectly lowering degrees of stress.

What’s important to note, though, is that the drugs only manage the physical symptoms associated with anxiety and not the psychological ones, Loftus said. Those might include worrying, irritability and intrusive thoughts. Your body might not feel stressed anymore but your mind still will.

What Loftus suggested is the use of the medications as part of a wider psychological treatment, at least if the intention is to take beta blockers to calm your nerves.

“Beta blockers can help a patient participate in therapy as it would create a state of calmness where they can focus on the session rather than their physical symptoms,” she noted.

Are there any risks to taking beta blockers?

No matter the reason behind beta blockers, there are some potential side effects to keep in mind, Loftus said. These include “dizziness, cold hands and feet, a slow heart rate, low blood pressure, constriction of the airways, fatigue and weakness, [and] sleep disturbances.” It’s best to take the medication under the care of physicians so you can reduce these symptoms.

There have been several studies over the years that suggest there may be a link between taking beta blockers and depression. Loftus is quick to dispel any sort of cause-and-effect relationship.

“Historically, it was thought that beta blockers can potentially cause depression,” she said. “But more recent studies have refuted that theory.”

Can beta blockers be taken indefinitely?

Although prescribed as both blood pressure medication and a way to quell levels of anxiety, long-term beta blocker usage seems to completely depend on the reason behind the intake.

According to Loftus, the drugs are often taken for long periods of time as a management strategy to help control blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular events. When it comes to chronic anxiety, though, things are different.

“Then, they might be prescribed on a more intermittent basis, particularly for situational anxiety or specific events,” Loftus said.