Stress can dramatically increase your blood pressure by causing arteries to constrict. This effect will reduce once the cause of the stress is addressed, but if you are experiencing chronic stress, you can develop a persistent high blood pressure as a result.
What is stress?
Stress is a modern term that simply means you are experiencing more emotional pressure than you feel able to cope with. A certain amount of pressure is essential to help you meet life’s challenges and achieve your full potential. Once pressure creeps outside your comfort zone, however, it can lead to the unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms – distress – that cause your blood pressure to rise.
How you cope with pressure will vary. One day you may feel calm and laid back, able to cope with everything thrown your way with excitement and motivation. Another day, you may feel overwhelmed by the number of items on your ‘To Do’ list.
When you feel stressed, your body prepares for physical activity as part of an ancient fight-or-flight response that helped our ancestors tackle invading tribes and run from sabre-tooth tigers. Nerve signals from the brain trigger the release of stress hormones (adrenaline/epinephrine, noradrenaline/norepinephrine and cortisol) from the adrenal glands. These rapidly constrict peripheral arteries supplying the skin (so you blanche with fear) and increase your blood pressure and pulse rate to shunt extra blood to your muscles and brain.
Physical exercise from fighting a battle or running away would then burn off the effects of these hormones so that, once danger passed, your blood pressure could return to normal as part of the rest-and-digest response.
In modern life, however, stress rarely results in fighting or fleeing, and the effects of these stress hormones persist for prolonged periods of time. In susceptible individuals, this over-activates the sympathetic nervous system so that blood pressure remains elevated. This effect, known as Gaisbock’s syndrome, is associated with white coat hypertension in which blood pressure rises dramatically when measured (usually by someone wearing a white coat) in a stressful situation (such as a doctor’s surgery or hospital).
Gaisbock’s syndrome is a strong predictor of future hypertension. It is also associated with poor left ventricular function and decreased elasticity of artery walls.
How to deal with stress
If your blood pressure varies significantly during the day, it is important to take steps to reduce your exposure to stress, to increase your level of exercise, and to practice relaxation therapies.
- When feeling stressed, stop what you are doing and inwardly say ‘Calm’ to yourself. Meditation can help.
- Take a deep breath in and let it out slowly, concentrating on the movement of your diaphragm. Do this two or three times until you start to feel more in control. Breathing exercises can help.
- Stand and stretch to your fullest extent; shake your hands and arms briskly, then shrug your shoulders.
- Go for a brisk walk, even if it is only briefly around the room to help defuse the effects of stress hormones.
- Go somewhere private and groan or shout as loudly as you can. Some people find it helpful to punch a soft cushion as hard as possible.
- Place a few drops of a flower essence such as Bach Rescue Remedy, or Australian Bush Flower Emergency Essence, under your tongue.
- Listen to calming music – classical music, or natural sounds like recordings of the sea, bird songs, a babbling brook or waterfall are ideal.
- Use visualisation or meditation to find an inner spot of calm when all around you is in a state of tension or chaos. Relaxation exercises can help.
- Watch a comedy – laughter is a great antidote to stress.
Once you feel back in control, aim to organise your life and manage your time as effectively as possible. Prioritise tasks so you can deal with one pressure at a time. Say ‘No’ to unreasonable demands and delegate as many jobs as possible. Make a point of complementing others around you – if you make them feel good about themselves, the positive effects will wear off on you, too.
If your blood pressure is borderline or raised, self-monitoring is key to maintaining good control.
Click here for advice on choosing a blood pressure monitor to use at home.
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