Beta blockers slow down your heart rate. Doctors prescribe them to patients dealing with cardiovascular issues like high blood pressure, or even to treat mental health issues like anxiety. They’re so effective at calming people down that they’re even banned from some sports competitions that require steady, controlled movements like archery or fishing.
Now, as it turns out, the calming effects of beta Blockers might even help reduce violence. A new study published on Jan. 31 in the journal PLOS Medicine found that people taking beta blockers were less likely to become aggressive or charged with a violent crime. The authors believe that this opens even more doors of the medication to be used to treat mental issues like aggression and violence.
“Beta blockers act by blocking the action of adrenalin and noradrenalin, which are hormones associated with stress and one basis of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response,” Seena Fazel, a psychiatric researcher at the University of Oxford and co-author of the study, told The Daily Beast in an email. She added that this could result in the body’s response to “stressful and threatening situations.”
By stopping adrenaline’s effects, beta blockers allow the heart to pump normally and feel calmer, blunting the rise in physiological processes that could otherwise encourage someone to act aggressively or violently. And other research has shown that beta blockers can be used to cure some mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and even arachnophobia.
For the new study, the researchers looked at 1.4 million beta blocker users in Sweden over an eight year period from 2006 to 2013, assessing how patients behaved when they were on the medication and off of it. The authors found that beta blocker treatments were associated with a 13 percent lower chance of being charged with a violent crime, and also associated with an 8 percent lower risk of being hospitalized due to a psychiatric disorder.
Of course, these are just correlations—meaning that the researchers don’t know for certain whether or not the beta blockers are causing the effect. They note that the associations varied on the users’ past psychiatric history and their cardiac condition. And the researchers also found that people on beta blockers experienced an 8 percent increase in being treated for suicidal behavior.
However, Fazel said that the beta blockers weren’t the “cause of this increased suicidal risk” and that it was likely due to the negative psychological reactions that the users had to having physical problems like cardiac issues.
It’s worth noting though that there is still a lot that scientists don’t understand about beta blockers and their effects. There’s been some research in the past that suggest an association between the use of the medication with increased suicidal ideation. However, there’s not enough research to establish a conclusive connection.
While the authors said that more research is needed into the association of beta blockers and decreased violence, if there is evidence that shows that the medication works at suppressing violent tendencies, it could be used to help individuals struggling with anger and aggression manage their emotions and actions.
“We hope that the findings will lead to research using different study designs, such as randomised controlled trials of beta blockers for violence and aggression in high risk groups,” Fazel said.