In a doctor's arsenal of drugs, beta-blockers, such as propranolol, are commonly prescribed for heart attacks as well as anxiety. But how can the same medication work in two seemingly disparate conditions?
As it turns out, the biological underpinnings of a heart attack and a severe panic attack aren't all that different. The body's sympathetic nervous system's primary response is to stimulate a "fight-or-flight" response. When this system gets erratic, the body can get revved up to disabling proportions. As a result, in both heart and panic attacks, the symptoms can appear quite similar, including tremors, abnormal heart rhythms, and shortness of breath.
Beta-blockers act on the beta-adrenergic receptors of the sympathetic nervous system. They prevent adrenaline and noradrenaline from binding to the receptors and thus, the fight-or-flight response is dampened. In essence, the beta-blockers soothe the sympathetic nervous system, which treats the symptoms of heart attacks and panic attacks.