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Anxiety is a common emotion, but too much can affect your body and well-being. You might have heard that anxiety and stress can cause high blood pressure, but is this true? Read on to learn about the relationship between anxiety and high blood pressure and what you can do about it.
Can anxiety raise blood pressure?
Yes, intense stress and anxiety can cause sharp spikes in blood pressure—at least temporarily. Some think anxiety could increase the risk of chronic high blood pressure (hypertension), but we need more evidence to say that for sure (Pan, 2015).
Whether anxiety causes chronic high blood pressure or not, those temporary spikes may still be harmful if they happen often. We all experience anxiety from time to time, and those temporary blood pressure spikes are not dangerous. But living with chronic anxiety that causes your blood pressure to shoot up very frequently could—over time—put you at increased risk of cardiovascular disease (Satyjeet, 2020).
What’s the relationship between anxiety and blood pressure?
Many things can influence blood pressure, and anxiety is one of them. Before discussing the relationship between anxiety and blood pressure, it helps to start with a basic understanding of what they both are:
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion we all experience; it’s a reaction to stress that causes you to feel worried or afraid due to a real or imagined situation.
Symptoms of anxiety include sweating, trembling, a fast heart rate, or racing thoughts. It’s normal to feel anxiety sometimes, but when the feeling becomes constant or interferes with your daily life, it becomes known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a diagnosable mental health condition (Munir, 2022).
When we feel intense stress or anxiety, our body reacts automatically with activation of the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight response. This response triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Theoretically, this process evolved to help us survive fighting or outrunning predators or dangerous situations, and it’s helpful for short bouts, but when it happens too often or for long periods, it can cause more harm than good.
What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the force with which your blood travels through your blood vessels, and high blood pressure is when that pressure is too strong. Blood pressure can be affected by how intensely your heart pumps, how much blood you have in your body, and how wide or narrow your blood vessels are. There is a range of normal blood pressures, which can increase or decrease due to normal activities (like sleep or exercise), age, medications, and more.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when blood pressure is consistently higher than normal. This can cause a range of health issues due to strain on the blood vessels, as well as damage to the heart and other organs (sort of like watering your flowers with a fire hose).
Since hypertension, especially in its early stages, often doesn’t cause symptoms, many people don’t even know that they have it (Iqbal, 2022). When it does cause symptoms, they’re typically related to the pressure of the blood pumping too strongly. You may notice a headache, but more often, it’s diagnosed during a routine check-up or after an event like a heart attack or stroke.
How does anxiety raise blood pressure?
Stress and anxiety cause the fight-or-flight stress response, a valuable survival tool where your brain—sensing danger—releases a flood of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones activate your sympathetic nervous system, which boosts your blood sugar, increases your heart rate, sends oxygen to your muscles, and causes your blood pressure to spike.
These actions can be useful (like if you hear a siren close by or are being threatened), but the fight-or-flight response can also occur due to non-threatening situations or worries. If you experience chronic stress and anxiety, the physiological consequences of the fight-or-flight response don’t just happen occasionally; they could be happening every day. That means frequent blood pressure spikes can be especially problematic if you have other risk factors for hypertension or if you smoke to cope with your anxiety (Chu, 2021).
Can high blood pressure cause anxiety?
High blood pressure doesn’t directly cause general anxiety disorder. However, long-term high blood pressure (or any chronic health condition) can be difficult to cope with, and it’s normal to feel anxious or upset about it, especially when you’re newly diagnosed.
Experiencing daily stress from a chronic illness can certainly contribute to anxiety (not to mention other mental health and emotional issues) if it continues for a long time. And some symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder may overlap with symptoms of high blood pressure, like an elevated heart rate. But having high blood pressure doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be depressed or anxious.
Can you use marijuana for anxiety?
What can you do if anxiety is contributing to your high blood pressure?
Physical and mental health are closely linked, and anxiety and blood pressure are no exception. There are lots of self-care tools available to reduce stress levels that may help reduce high blood pressure:
- Visit your healthcare provider as recommended. Annual checkups are important, and additional visits are crucial if something doesn’t feel right. Communicate openly with your provider. This makes them aware of what you’re experiencing so that they can best help you.
- Connect to your family or a supportive community. You may have a loved one with similar issues, and it can be helpful to seek support and share ideas.
Tips for decreasing anxiety
Stress-management techniques are great for decreasing anxiety levels and helping life feel more manageable. These include:
- Trying therapy (especially cognitive behavioral therapy) (Borza, 2017)
- Getting regular exercise
- Getting good deep sleep
- Eating a healthy diet that can improve heart health
- Practicing mindfulness or meditation (try phone-based apps or online tools for ideas)
- Reducing as many life stressors as you can—this may mean saying “no” more or re-prioritizing tasks and accepting that you may just not get to some things.
- Medications (like anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants) are sometimes appropriate as either a short-term step or a longer-term management tool for people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
Tips for decreasing blood pressure
Luckily, many of the lifestyle changes that help with anxiety can also help lower blood pressure, like physical activity, eating well, and getting good rest. If you have chronic hypertension, a healthcare provider may recommend medications to help decrease it.
How chronic stress could affect heart health
Worrying that your stress and anxiety might be causing a problem with blood pressure is a recipe for added anxiety. The good news is it’s unlikely that your anxiety is causing ongoing hypertension, and there are many simple ways to help manage stress.
- Borza, L. (2017). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for generalized anxiety. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 19(2), 203–208. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2017.19.2/lborza. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573564/
- Chu, B., Marwaha, K., Sanvictores, T., & Ayers, D. (2021). Physiology, stress reaction. StatPearls. Retrieved on Apr. 6, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/
- Iqbal, A. M. & Jamal, S. F. (2022). Essential hypertension. StatPearls. Retrieved on May 10, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539859/
- Munir, S. & Takov, V. (2022). Generalized anxiety disorder. StatPearls. Retrieved on Apr. 6, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441870/
- Pan, Y., Cai, W., Cheng, Q., et al. (2015). Association between anxiety and hypertension: a systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 11, 1121–1130. doi:10.2147/NDT.S77710. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4411016/
- Satyjeet, F., Naz, S., Kumar, V., et. al. (2020). Psychological stress as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease: A case-control study. Cureus, 12(10), e10757. doi: 10.7759/cureus.10757. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7603890/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.