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Last updated: May 06, 2022
7 min read

Stress and blood pressure: what’s the link?

 

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Think back to the last stressful situation you were in—taking an important exam, giving a huge presentation at work, or even being stuck in traffic. Besides causing anxious feelings, this experience may have affected you physically, making your heart pound and palms sweat. You might have heard that feeling intense stress can raise your blood pressure, but what exactly is the link between stress and blood pressure? Let’s dig in. 

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What’s the connection between high blood pressure and stress? 

A single stressful incident can acutely raise your blood pressure. When your brain identifies a stressful situation, it signals your body to release chemicals and hormones that make your blood pressure go up, like cortisol and epinephrine (Munakata, 2018). 

Though stressful situations can make your blood pressure rise, your blood pressure usually drops again soon after the situation has passed. But chronic stress and anxiety may also have long-term effects that contribute to consistently high blood pressure (hypertension). 

Can stress cause high blood pressure? 

Stress by itself is usually not the only cause of high blood pressure, but anxiety and mental stress have been linked to the development of hypertension (Esler, 2017; Ushakov, 2016).

Some researchers believe that chronic stress and anxiety can cause changes in your blood vessels, exposing them to inflammation and harmful free radicals that damage DNA (a process called oxidative stress). Over time, these changes may cause premature aging of blood vessels and contribute to high blood pressure (Ahmad, 2017; Cicalese, 2019). 

How to decrease stress

Since stress can raise your blood pressure, it stands to reason that reducing stress could help lower blood pressure. Some techniques that may help decrease stress include: 

Exercise

Studies show that regular exercise helps with stress, anxiety, and depression and may improve sleep and overall well-being (van der Zwan, 2015). The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting 150 minutes of physical activity a week, but this doesn’t mean you need to be doing high-intensity exercise at the gym (Arnett, 2019). 

Take a brisk 30-minute walk a few times a week, park your car a little further away from your destination, or dance around your kitchen while you cook—with a little creativity, the possibilities are endless. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness techniques, like meditation, guided imagery, and deep breathing exercises, can decrease intense feelings of stress (Snippe, 2017; Bao, 2015). They may even reduce the physical effects of stress, like a racing heartbeat (Feldman, 2016). 

There are plenty of ways to practice mindfulness, even when you’re just starting out. Sit quietly and focus on your breathing, picture a soothing image, or think of a place that makes you feel calm. Smartphones and computers are also great tools—there are many apps that can teach you more about mindfulness. 

Yoga

Yoga may help relieve stress and anxiety, improve mental health, lower heart rate, and relieve pain, although not all studies agree on these potential effects. Despite some conflicting evidence, yoga is generally considered a safe and healthy practice that may be a helpful strategy for reducing stress (Carlson, 2019; Pascoe, 2017). 

Therapy

Sometimes, stress isn’t just a passing feeling, but rather, a symptom of a condition like generalized anxiety disorder. In this case, a healthcare provider or mental health professional may suggest therapy techniques like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to help reduce stress and manage anxiety (Simon, 2021).  

How to lower blood pressure

Reducing stress is an important strategy that can help lower your blood pressure, but it’s not the only thing to try. Other things you can do to lower blood pressure include: 

Stop smoking

Cigarette smoking puts you at higher risk for heart disease (cardiovascular disease). When you stop smoking, you improve your blood pressure and significantly reduce your risk of severe complications like heart attacks and strokes (Virdis, 2010; Samadian, 2016). 

Drink less alcohol

Excess alcohol consumption may be linked to high blood pressure (Whelton, 2018). This doesn’t mean you can’t have a drink or two sometimes, but the AHA recommends limiting regular alcohol intake to fewer than two drinks a day for men and fewer than one drink a day for women (Arnett, 2019).

Eat a heart-healthy diet

Eating a nutritious, balanced diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can help lower your blood pressure. Sticking to low-salt (low-sodium) foods is helpful since a high sodium intake may increase your risk of high blood pressure (Arnett, 2019). 

Reduce excess weight

Losing weight when indicated (for example, in adults with overweight or obesity) can help lower blood pressure. Maintaining a healthy weight also helps control other underlying conditions that may increase blood pressure, like type 2 diabetes, clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), and high cholesterol (Arnett, 2019).  

Exercise

In addition to helping with stress management, regular exercise helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It can also help reduce overall cardiovascular risk, including heart attacks. (Sharman, 2015). 

Sleep

Not getting enough sleep (less than seven hours of sleep a night) or getting poor quality sleep (e.g., having sleep apnea or waking frequently) leads to an increased risk of high blood pressure (Lo, 2018; Lattanzi, 2018). So don’t be too tempted to binge-watch an entire season of your new favorite show or finish a few more chapters in your new novel—get some sleep instead!

Medications

If you’ve got high blood pressure that doesn’t respond well enough to these techniques, your healthcare provider may recommend using blood pressure medications (antihypertensive medications). There are multiple different types, and your provider can help determine which one is right for you. 

Stress can increase your blood pressure in the short term, and many experts believe it can contribute to chronic high blood pressure. If you’re not sure how to reduce your stress or you have concerns about blood pressure, reach out to your healthcare provider for advice. 

References

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