The pressure of having to perform can be stressful for many of us. Whether we’re talking about a concert violinist, a public speaker, a student taking a critical exam, someone on a first date, or even an Olympic athlete, chances are they have felt the “butterflies” before the big moment.
A little bit of anxiety before a big performance or exam is entirely reasonable, and might even help some people elevate their intensity and focus. For some, however, it can be overwhelming to the point where they are unable to perform at their usual level.
Many people turn to a class of pharmaceuticals known as beta-blockers to combat stage fright and get through a performance, exam, or speech. Beta-blockers block the effects of the adrenaline hormone, and they can temporarily reduce the body’s fight-or-flight response, and provide relief from some symptoms of performance anxiety.
But do beta-blockers really help with anxiety and stage fright in the long run?
Here, we’ll learn more about performance anxiety, and if beta-blockers are an effective treatment for performance anxiety. We’ll also list what ingredients you should look for in a “natural beta-blocker” supplement.
What is stage fright or performance anxiety?
Performance anxiety, or stage fright, is the anxiousness that some people feel when they have to perform in front of an audience. It might also involve other situations that require them to perform under pressure. Performance anxiety can be a combination of physical, mental, and emotional responses, and it is often experienced by people that suffer from a social anxiety disorder (SAD – not the ‘winter blues‘ type, that’s a whole different issue).
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People with a social anxiety disorder (SAD) fear being judged negatively or getting rejected in a social or performance situation . They might experience physical symptoms like rapid heartbeats, sweating, trembling hands, and in some severe cases, nausea or even full-blown panic attacks. SAD can cause some people to avoid situations they fear, which might, unfortunately, lead them to stop pursuing their passions, like performing in front of an audience.
Social anxiety can be categorized into generalized social anxiety and performance-only social anxiety .
People suffering from generalized social anxiety have fears about various social and performance situations such as giving speeches, being at a party, going on a first date, and more.
As the name suggests, those with performance-only social anxiety might have fears about performing for an audience or an audition. However, they might not be anxious at a social gathering.
Though generalized social anxiety is considered to be more severe, both forms of SAD can significantly affect someone’s quality of life, especially if they are pursuing a career that requires them to be on stage.
Social anxiety is a complex issue, and both biological and environmental factors can be responsible.
Anxiety often runs in the family, but we don’t know for sure if it is due to genetics, or if the fear response becomes a learned behavior. Being bullied as a child or having overprotective parents may contribute to the development of social anxiety as adults .
Biological factors may also play a role in SAD. Having an overactive amygdala, a part of the brain involved in the fear response, can make one more prone to social anxiety. An appearance or feature that draws excessive attention (like a stutter or disfigurement) may also be a risk factor for SAD.
What are beta-blockers?
Beta-blockers are a class of pharmaceuticals that work by blocking the effects of adrenaline hormone, which plays a vital role in triggering the fight-or-flight in a stressful situation. Beta-blockers reduce the stress on the heart and lowers the force with which it has to pump blood. This has a relaxing impact on the blood vessels found in the heart, brain, and around the body .
Doctors typically prescribe beta-blockers for a variety of conditions such as abnormal heart rhythm, high blood pressure, angina, glaucoma, among others.
How do beta-blockers help performers?
When a performer or speaker takes a beta-blocker, it slows their heart rate, reduces the trembling and sweating, and it regulates their breathing and blood pressure. It helps the performer feel relaxed, essentially negating the stress response to help them get through the performance.
We should make a note that each individual is different, especially when it comes to causes of anxiety. We also vary widely in symptoms, the severity of those symptoms, and how we react to specific medications. So how you, specifically, respond to a beta-blocker can be different from someone else.
Also, while beta-blockers are typically prescribed for conditions such as abnormal heart rhythm, high blood pressure, angina, etc., here we will be talking about them in the context of being used for performance and social anxiety. As always, be sure to consult with your physician if you’re considering beta-blockers for social anxiety
If you’re someone that has experienced social anxiety from time to time, you may have considered using beta-blockers. Let’s look at some of the most popular beta-blockers in the market, and whether they are useful when dealing with SAD.
Propranolol for anxiety
Propranolol is typically used for short-term relief from the physical symptoms of social anxiety. It might help balance heart rate, and reduce sweating and trembling, to help a speaker or performer get through their event. Some performers have claimed that their careers might have been saved due to Propranolol helping them get through episodes of performance-related anxiety .
One of the positive aspects of Propranolol is that it has minimal side effects. Some people may feel lethargy, lightheadedness, slow heart rate, etc., but most performers that take the drug report a net positive impact on their performance. Also, side effects are not common when Propranolol is only used occasionally for stage fright.
Atenolol for anxiety
Atenolol is another beta-blocker used for performance anxiety. The advantage Atenolol has over Propranolol is that its effects are longer lasting. On the other hand, if Atenolol is taken frequently, then sudden withdrawal can cause very high blood pressure. However, as mentioned before, that scenario is unlikely when only used for the occasional social situation.
Metoprolol for anxiety
Metoprolol is less popular for social anxiety than Propranolol. Metoprolol is typically used for treating high blood pressure, and patients also report experiencing more side effects than the other beta-blockers, such as dizziness, tiredness, or nausea.
Although Metoprolol could have similar effects on the physical symptoms of social anxiety as the other beta-blockers, performers seem to prefer the other options due to lower risk of adverse side effects.
Social anxiety is a complex condition with physical, mental, and emotional components. Beta-blockers can only address the physical symptoms at the moment when you’re experiencing performance anxiety.
While they might be crucial in aiding calmness so that you can get through your speech or performance, beta-blockers can never address the root causes of your social anxiety. They are also unable to help with the mental and emotional aspects of SAD.
To win the fight against anxiety in the long term, you should consult with a clinical psychologist so that they can create a plan of action based on your specific needs.
As far as diet and supplements are concerned, you should look for ingredients that support and promote overall brain health. An optimally functioning brain will be better equipped to handle anxiety symptoms and maintain calmness when you’re under pressure, whether in a social or performance situation.
What should I look for in a natural beta-blocker?
Whether you’re shopping for a natural beta-blocker supplement, or looking to make dietary choices that might promote calmness and a balanced mood, keep an eye out for the following ingredients.
Balance GABA levels to promote relaxation
GABA, or Gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an amino acid that plays the role of a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. GABA’s primary function is to reduce the activity levels of neurons in the nervous system, which then has various effects on the body like promoting relaxation, calmness, and a balanced mood. If your GABA levels are disrupted, you might be more susceptible to social anxiety disorder (SAD) .
While there is plenty of research confirming GABA’s role in anxiety , science is limited when it comes to the effectiveness of GABA supplements. There are doubts about how much GABA crosses the blood-brain barrier when taken in a supplement form (which would be critical for the supplement to affect anxiety).
However, there is anecdotal evidence of people experiencing a calmer state after taking GABA supplements. Some small studies suggest that GABA supplements could promote relaxation.
Two separate 2006 studies looked at the effects of GABA supplements on the brain .
The first study involved 13 participants taking GABA, water, and L-theanine (an amino acid known to promote relaxation, and also another ingredient on our list). Compared to water and L-theanine, GABA significantly increased alpha brain waves, which are associated with feeling calm and relaxed.
In the other study, eight subjects were divided into two groups. One group was given GABA, and the other a placebo. Then all subjects had to cross a suspended bridge for a stimulus of stress. The GABA group was found to be considerably more relaxed as they performed a stressful task.
Researchers concluded that GABA could work as a natural relaxant.
Recommended GABA supplements for anxiety & stage fright:
So, to recap, we know that disrupted GABA levels are associated with anxiety. And while the evidence on GABA supplements is encouraging, the research is limited at this point.
Some other ways to boost GABA are to take L-theanine supplements (which has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier), and to consume foods that promote GABA. Some GABA boosting foods are whole grains, lentils and beans, walnuts, shrimp, halibut, berries, spinach, and broccoli, among others. Green, black, and oolong tea can also boost GABA .
L-Theanine may help reduce generalized anxiety
L-theanine is an amino acid present in tea leaves. It can be found in both green tea and black tea. L-theanine is available in supplement form as well .
Green tea has been widely used in traditional Chinese medicine, and more recently, L-theanine has been gaining prominence for its potential in treating anxiety symptoms . L-theanine has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, which can be critical when it comes to its ability to affect brain health .
There is evidence to suggest that L-theanine boosts GABA levels, which can promote relaxation without drowsiness, which is why many people drink green tea to unwind after a stressful day. L-theanine may also reduce levels of brain chemicals that are linked with stress and anxiety .
A 2019 review published in the Pharmacological Research Journal looked at the psychotropic effects of L-theanine in the management of anxiety and stress. The data suggested that L-theanine may induce anti-anxiety and anti-stress effects when taken regularly for up to 8 weeks .
So, taking an L-theanine supplement or drinking an adequate amount of green or black tea might boost GABA levels in your nervous system, which might help you remain calm in stressful social or performance situations.
Taylor Swift is one of the biggest and most loved performing artists in the world. But even she is not immune to anxiety. And as it turns out, she is a big fan of L-theanine.
Before her 30th birthday, she shared 30 lessons she has learned in life with Elle magazine. One of those lessons happen to be the benefits of vitamins, and how L-theanine helps her deal with stress and anxiety . See our Taylor Swift supplements article for more information.
Recommended L-theanine supplements for stage fright & anxiety
Valerian root, an ancient herb that may reduce nervous tension and stress
Valerian root is a herb prepared from the root of the valerian plant, which is found in the wild throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.
Valerian root has been used for centuries as an herbal remedy is thought to improve symptoms of tension and anxiety. The ancient Greeks and Romans used the root for things like nervousness, stress, trembling, all of which affect those suffering from social anxiety .
There isn’t a whole lot of conclusive evidence on how valerian root works, but researchers suspect that it boosts GABA levels in the brain. As we’ve discussed before, GABA promotes relaxation and calmness .
There is also anecdotal evidence of people benefiting from the use of valerian root .
Recommended Valerian Root supplements
Glycine, an amino acid that may promote cognitive health
Glycine is another amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter and has been shown to play a role in optimal brain health . It is considered to be one of the most critical amino acids as it influences a wide array of systems in the body, including metabolic, cardiovascular, as well as cognitive health. Most people typically get glycine from dietary sources like dairy, meat, and fish.
Glycine regulates how cells function in the brain and central nervous system, which affects mood, sleep, pain perception, and more. Glycine also contributes to the production of serotonin, a hormone that is associated with a balanced mood and sleep . Glycine’s effect on serotonin might be of interest to someone with social anxiety, since low serotonin levels have been linked with various mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
In a 2019 study published in the Neuropharmacology Journal, researchers looked at the effect of activating glycine receptors in the brain of rats suffering from anxiety due to withdrawal from chronic alcohol consumption. Activation of glycine receptors in the brain reduced their stress levels, as well as their alcohol intake when given access to alcohol again .
Another 2017 review published in the Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity Journal looked at the various benefits of glycine and concluded that it plays a role in healthy brain function, and also in enhancing the quality of sleep, both of which could be critical for someone with anxiety .
Recommended Glycine Supplements for performance anxiety
Niacin (vitamin B3) may help you fight anxiety
Niacin (or niacinamide) is a significant component of two coenzymes, NAD and NADP, which are critical for the proper functioning of the brain . Niacin is involved in focus, memory, concentration, and how fast one can process information.
Deficiency in Niacin has been linked with various mental health conditions, like schizophrenia .
In one study, three patients with anxiety disorders who were given 2000-2500mg of niacinamide per day showed significant signs of improvement. Among possible reasons for the positive results, the report listed niacinamide’s potential to raise serotonin levels, and its similarity to benzodiazepine, a class of psychoactive drugs used to treat anxiety .
Another 2018 report looked at the effects of niacin at higher doses on a male patient with bipolar type II disorder, who had previously been treated with lithium and other medications. When he was first given niacin, he experienced better results compared to his previous drugs. What’s even more interesting, is that gradually he was able to stop taking all other medications except niacin, and remain stable and calm for over eleven years only with the help of niacin. During this period, if the patient stopped taking niacin, he would become stressed and anxious within a couple of days. However, as soon as he started retaking niacin, his symptoms would improve within a day .
These reports, along with what we already know about niacin, indicates that the vitamin plays a vital role in brain health. So, niacin might help you in your fight against symptoms of social anxiety.
Taurine may boost performance and reduce stress
Taurine is another amino acid, like several other ingredients in our “natural beta-blocker” list. It is also found primarily in animal food sources, such as meat, fish, and dairy. Taurine is often added to energy drinks and supplements to help athletes boost performance.
Taurine plays a vital role in many functions within your body, such as regulating electrolyte balance and hydration, digestion, and immune function, to name a few .
When it comes to cognitive health, taurine acts as a neurotransmitter, as well as a neuroprotectant (a substance that aids the preservation of neuronal structure and function) . Taurine is also an activator of GABA receptors in your brain, which could support a calm and stable mental state .
One potential effect of taurine that might be particularly interesting to those with performance anxiety is that there is evidence to suggest that taurine can dampen the cortisol response to stress. In other words, it may reduce the fight-or-flight response which is responsible for many symptoms of social or performance anxiety & stage fright .
There is also evidence that shows taurine’s effects as a therapeutic agent against stress and anxiety. One study found that taurine had an antidepressant effect on stress-induced depressed rats .
Recommended Taurine Supplements for boosting performance & reducing anxiety
Magnesium and vitamin B6 may boost focus in performers
Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals in the human body, involved in over 300 biochemical processes, including protein formation, energy creation, DNA repair, and nervous system regulation. Magnesium also helps with muscle contractions, regulating heart health, maintaining stable blood sugar, and healthy brain function, among many others .
Some common dietary sources of magnesium are avocados, nuts, legumes, pumpkin seeds, whole grains, and leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collard greens, etc. Some people also take magnesium supplements if they’re unable to get an adequate amount from their diet.
Americans are becoming increasingly magnesium deficient due to the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in the western pattern diet (WPD), which tends to be rich in processed and unhealthy foods. According to recent numbers, it is estimated that a whopping 68 percent of Americans don’t get the recommended daily amount of magnesium in their diet.
Magnesium may be relevant to those with social anxiety due to its potential effects as a natural relaxant. Magnesium is involved in regulating neurotransmitter levels, which could promote healthy brain function .
One study also showed that magnesium, when combined with vitamin B6, improved behavioral disorder in children with ADHD syndrome (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) .
Although the study was on focus for children with ADHD, magnesium combined with vitamin B6 could benefit those with social or performance anxiety as well. By helping you focus on the task at hand, whether it’s playing the violin on stage, or communicating with a stranger at a party, it might protect you from negative thought patterns that make your anxiety symptoms worse.
Recommended Magnesium & Vitamin B6 Supplement for improving focus
Diet and supplements are only one component of a holistic approach when dealing with brain health and anxiety. You should consult with a clinical psychologist so that they can evaluate the complete picture surrounding your anxiety symptoms, and create a treatment plan specific to your needs.
Your therapist might recommend things like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), yoga, meditation, as well as medications if necessary.
For a more comprehensive guide on natural alternatives to beta-blockers, be sure to check out our in-depth article on the topic.
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Final thoughts on beta-blockers and anxiety
Beta-blockers are generally considered to be safe and effective when dealing with the physical symptoms of a stress response, and they seem to be of significant benefit in helping performers deal with stage fright.
However, beta-blockers are not designed to improve how your brain functions. They are only a temporary solution to stop the physical symptoms of social anxiety.
Addressing the root causes of your anxiety might require the help of a medical professional. However, you can take the first step towards boosting your brain health today by including some of the natural beta-blocker ingredients in your diet to promote relaxation and optimal brain function.
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