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How Can Beta Blockers Help to Treat Social Phobia?

written by: Terrie Schultz • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 8/28/2010

Beta blockers are a type of medication usually prescribed for high blood pressure and heart palpitations. These drugs can help to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety caused by social phobia.

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    How Beta Blockers are Used to Help Treat Social Phobia

    Those who suffer from social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, have a fear of social situations in which they feel they will be watched or judged by others. More extreme than shyness, social phobia can make it difficult or impossible to function in public situations such as the workplace, restaurants or other public places requiring interaction with others. Social phobia can cause unpleasant physical symptoms of blushing, shaking, trembling and accelerated heart rate.

    Beta blockers are a class of drugs that are usually prescribed for high blood pressure and irregular heart beat. Since social phobia can cause similar physical reactions, beta blockers are sometimes prescribed to alleviate these symptoms.

    Beta blockers act by blocking the receptors for the stress hormones adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine). Receptors for these hormones are located in many different places in the body. Adrenaline and similar hormones are responsible for the fight or flight response, and are automatically released during stressful situations. The fight or flight response causes physical changes including sweating, increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing, and decreased digestive activity. Since beta blockers prevent the stress hormones from binding to their receptors, the physical responses to stress do not occur or are diminished.

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    What are Social Phobia Beta Blockers?

    Two beta blockers that are used to treat social phobia are propanolol (also known as Inderal), and atenolol (also known as Tenormin).

    Propanolol is used for temporary relief of symptoms of social anxiety. It should not be taken if pregnant or nursing. Side effects include sleepiness, light-headedness, short-term memory loss, very slow pulse, insomnia, diarrhea, cold hands and feet, and tingling or numbness in fingers and toes.

    Atenolol is used on more of a long-term basis, but those taking it daily should not stop taking it abruptly, or there is danger of a sudden extreme rise in blood pressure that could cause a heart attack or stroke. Side effects include tiredness, dizziness, and cold hands and feet. Other possible side effects are a very slow heart rate, nightmares and depression.

    These beta blockers can relieve some of the physical symptoms of social phobia, although if the symptoms are very severe, these drugs may be ineffective. Since beta blockers act to lower blood pressure and decrease heart rate, they are contraindicated for those who already have been diagnosed with heart conditions or low blood pressure. In addition, they should not be taken by those who have a number of other conditions including asthma, chronic lung problems or wheezing, diabetes or depression. Beta blockers may cause physical dependence if used on a continuous basis. It is recommended to use these drugs only occasionally, on an as-needed basis to alleviate the symptoms of social phobia.

    Beta blockers are prescription medication, and must be prescribed by a qualified doctor who will tell you when they should be taken.

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