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Atenolol is a beta blocker, a class of medications often used to treat high blood pressure, or hypertension. By decreasing the body's fight or flight response in this way, this medication also serves as an anxiety treatment. The use of atenolol for anxiety is well-established among the medical community, and this drug has been shown to reduce anxiety from many different sources.
Anxiety produces both psychological symptoms, such as worrying and feelings of dread, as well as physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat and high blood pressure. This particular beta blocker does not enter the brain, but it does stop the physical symptoms of anxiety. Taking atenolol for anxiety can prevent these physical symptoms from providing positive feedback to the brain, thereby reducing the psychological symptoms in an indirect way.
Support for using atenolol to treat anxiety comes from studies regarding the effectiveness of this drug in treating hypertension. Research investigating improvements in the quality of life among individuals taking this beta blocker found that not only were physical symptoms often controlled, but a better quality of life was also frequently reported. This was related, in turn, to certain other dimensions including a lack of depression and anxiety. Some patients noted that they preferred this compound to more traditional anxiety medications, since it did not produce difficulties in functioning due to drowsiness and the risk of dependence. Both of these qualities are dangers inherent in using benzodiazepines, another class of medication, to treat anxiety.
Studies have demonstrated that taking atenolol for anxiety resulting from other mood disorders, such as social phobia, is somewhat effective. When compared to certain types of behavioral therapy requiring immersion in social situations, atenolol was not as effective at reducing anxiety. The same was true when comparing this beta blocker to a type of antidepressant known as phenelzine. Atenolol was shown to be superior to a placebo treatment for this condition, however.
Performance anxiety and withdrawal from alcohol are two other conditions for which this medications may occasionally be used. Other beta blockers, such as propranolol, are sometimes used to treat these conditions. Atenolol is often preferred to these other compounds on the grounds that the latter does not have as many side effects, and has a longer half-life, meaning that it remains in the body, exerting its effects. These uses of atenolol for anxiety are off label, or not not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for these particular purposes.