We’ve all felt that rush before a big event.
Your heart starts pounding and your breath becomes shallow as your chest constricts. The notes that you could remember perfectly a few hours ago suddenly feel inaccessible, and you frantically wipe your hands, which have suddenly started sweating profusely.
Believe it or not, these physical symptoms and more can result from elevated adrenaline levels.
Adrenaline pumps into your system as part of your fight-or-flight response: as your whole system decides that (for whatever reason) this interview, presentation, or performance will result in your being eaten.
As adrenaline surges through your system in response to a high-pressure event, it can:
- Elevate your heart rate
- Relax your airway, causing shallow breathing
- Redirect blood flow to your muscles
- Provoke sweating (as redirected blood flow changes your internal temperature)
- Cause lightheadedness (as your blood and oxygen supply change)
These symptoms (and performance anxiety in general) are incredibly common among business leaders and actors, musicians and public speakers.
In fact, a Gallup poll found that around 40% of all adults experience some degree of performance anxiety. We’ve all, at one point or another, felt that surge of panic as we walk into an interview, or felt our heart beat madly before an important presentation or networking event.
That’s where beta-blockers come in.
So, what exactly do beta-blockers do?
Clinically-speaking, beta-blockers block the effects of epinephrine (adrenaline) on your system.
Functionally, that means that your heart beats more slowly when you take beta-blockers, lowering your blood pressure.
Some beta-blockers also help blood vessels open up, increasing blood flow.
Beta-blockers were originally developed to treat angina pectoris (a very fancy way of saying chest pain).
But research quickly showed they were an effective option for many other conditions, like:
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heart rhythm
Doctors have also found that beta-blockers can treat the physical symptoms of performance anxiety that emerge in stressful situations, prescribing musicians, actors, and public speakers beta-blockers for decades.
How do beta-blockers influence performance anxiety?
By blocking the physical effects of adrenaline, beta-blockers can lessen the feeling that your heart is trying to jump out of your chest.
They may reduce your dizziness or sweating as your blood and oxygen flow remain more stable. And your steady hands and regular heartbeat can help calm your nerves before going out and giving that big presentation.
However, beta-blockers do not address the underlying psychological causes of performance anxiety. Professionals and performers who take beta-blockers still feel stress before large events.
Nevertheless, by preventing the huge spike in adrenaline, beta-blockers help suppress the physical symptoms that can throw people off their game. People’s anxiety often intensifies when they notice their elevated heart rate and lightheadedness, prompting a negative feedback loop.
By removing such distractions, beta-blockers allow you to focus on the task at hand.
Beta-blockers are prescription medication and may not be right for anyone. Be sure to consult with a doctor to find out if they are the right option for you.
Want to know more? Start an online consult with a doctor now.
Reviewed by Dr. Alex Dimitriu
Dr. Alex Dimitriu is a Stanford-trained physician with dual board certification in psychiatry and sleep medicine. The included content is not intended to replace medical advice. Always be sure to discuss any prescription medications with your doctor.