How does Stress cause High Blood Pressure?

International Stress Awareness Day

Today, November 1st,  has been designated Stress Awareness Day around the world!

The International Stress Management Association (ISMA) has chosen the first Wednesday in November each year as the day to raise awareness and to help educate us about the effects of stress and anxiety upon the body – and our health.

So with that in mind, what better time than now to ask today’s question:

Does stress cause Hypertension?

Stress and Blood Pressure

For our ancestors living in the era of the Hunter/Gatherer the typical “Fight or Flight” response was essential for their very survival, and thus the reaction to danger, or a threatening situation by releasing stress hormones into the body, was critical.  Once the situation (which was by and large relatively short-lived) was resolved, the stress dissipated and the body would return to its normal state.

Fast forward to our chaotic, fast-paced and very demanding world of today.  We still have this stress response, but we are increasingly finding ourselves dealing with everyday situations in which a “fight or flight” reaction is not applicable.

The threat is no longer ‘situational’ but has become more pervasive (deadlines on the job, financial burdens, ongoing pressures at home) which actually leave us often in a state of angst for drawn out periods of time.  This is most certainly unhealthy.  The chronic stress which develops can lead to health problems, including high blood pressure and other related issues.

The Physiological Reaction to Stress

When the body detects a challenging situation, it reacts by releasing stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) into the system in order to prepare the body for the “fight or flight” state.  The hormones cause physiological changes in the body including increased heart rate and constricting of blood vessels in order to redirect blood flow to the body’s core and away from the extremities.

This very act of constricting the blood vessels naturally causes an increase in BP.  This is designed to be short-lived of course until the threat is over.

BUT for some of us, who have developed chronic stress syndrome from having to deal with unabated stress in our lives, the presence of these stress hormones constantly being released into our blood streams could very well lead to high blood pressure problems…

Research has shown that hypertension over a period of time results in arterial damage, which then leads to plaque build-up and eventual hardening of arteries (atherosclerosis) which in turn raises blood pressure further.  This then become a vicious cycle!

Breaking the Cycle

So it is very evident that the chronic stress cycle needs to be interrupted in order to safeguard our health.  This is why awareness is the important first step.  If we want to develop some effective and ongoing coping strategies for dealing with our stress, we first need to take time to step back and really have a good look at what is causing it.

Once we have identified the roots of our stress, then we are ready to set some mechanisms in place to prevent stress from putting our health at risk.

Easy peasy, right?  Well, yes and no.

The trick is to initially identify which stress coping strategies will work for you, and the challenge is working them into your everyday routines, so they just simply and naturally become part of your lifestyle.

Some Stress-Taming Strategies

#1 – Get Up and Move

This one is a great de-stresser!!  It’s all about movement, or physical activity, or exercise.  Call it what you want, the end result is going to be beneficial for your body and will help relieve stress without a doubt.

The very act of moving signals the brain to increase oxygen supply to the muscles, and to ensure that blood flow is optimized the body produces nitric oxide to help dilate and relax blood vessels.

The increased level of nitric oxide in the blood can last for some time after the activity has ceased and helps to keep BP down. This is why regular activity throughout the day is better for you than one 2 hour session at the gym.

Activity also strengthens your heart so that over time it is able to pump blood with less effort, thereby reducing the amount of pressure exerted on the arterial walls.  This naturally supports healthier blood pressure too.

#2 – Get out into Nature

Mother nature has provided us with a beautiful environment in which to de-stress.  walk in natureA walk in nature, for example along the beach or in the woods under the trees, can do you the world of good.  The sound of crashing waves on the foreshore, or the whooshing of the wind through the branches can be extremely relaxing.

In fact a study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois showed that viewing trees helped reduce stress levels in a group of test subjects.  I daresay star gazing would have a similar effect.

So the message here is that being in nature offers a good way of unburdening some of that stress.  Luckily for most of us nature is all around, so putting this one to the test is both free and easy!!

#3 – Develop a strong social network

Let me clarify right off the bat, this does not mean having 1000 friends on Facebook, or 500 followers on Twitter!  Steer clear of the virtual social network scene on this one!!

Nope, I am talking about a real social network of close friends whom you get together with regularly. Having someone you trust to discuss problems with is one of the simplest ways to alleviate stress according to Hansa Pankhania, a fellow of the International Stress Management Association.  She goes on to explain this thus:

“The verbalization of negative thoughts and emotions helps you to offload them from the body.  This is why counselling helps.”

So, getting together often with a good friend and having a confidential heart-to-heart will do you and your blood pressure no end of good.

#4 – Relax, Relax, Relax

Since the opposite of stress is relaxation, it follows that in a relaxed state your BP levels will become lower.  So a great coping mechanism is to find a way to help yourself relax.

This can be anything from meditation, to deep breathing, to yoga, to simply closing your eyes and listening to soothing music.  And you don’t have to spend hours on end at this.  Simply breathing deeply for several minutes can help.

Try inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 6 seconds and feel the difference.  This technique is recommended by the well-known healthy living guru, Linda Montagu because, as she states:

“Studies have shown that making your exhale longer than your inhale calms the central nervous system, creates space between your thoughts, stabilizes your emotions and gives you more mental clarity.”

Just discover which relaxation technique works for you and build time into your daily routine to do it!

#5 – Declutter and Simplify

We all have clutter in our lives and one easy way to relieve some of the stress associated with all of this is to declutter.  And this does not necessarily mean letting go of all your physical possessions, although some of that can be very therapeutic, too!

I am referring more to the clutter which accompanies the technology we all seem to be surrounded by these days.  Most of us now have Smart phones and are constantly being interrupted by alarms signalling incoming texts or emails.  The pressure and expectation of a quick response is a stressor all in itself, and this then just begets further texts and emails … and more stress!

So how about his for a concept:

Take some time away from your smart phone, tablet or even computer and just go off the grid for a while each day.  This will help to do two things for you:

  • restore balance to your day
  • help you realize what is really important and declutter all those things which are not

Making things simpler in your life will almost certainly have beneficial effects on your overall level of anxiety and stress.

#6 Make Sure you get enough Slumber

Conventional wisdom recommends that we all get 7-8 hours of sleep a night.  That’s all well and dandy, but probably not all that realistic for many of us.  And sleep researchers are starting to examine the importance of quality of sleep over quantity of sleep in terms of how well rested a person feels the next morning.  This would explain why some people can manage just fine on 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.

So, for the best quality of sleep there should be little to no disturbance of the sleep cycle.  Many of us, especially as we are getting older, do not enjoy that luxury anymore.

Certain sleep disorders like chronic snoring, frequent wake-ups to use the bathroom, inability to turn our brains off, and so on can have a deep impact on our sleep.  And long term poor quality sleep can definitely influence how we cope with stress during the daytime hours.

In a previous post I looked at the connection between sleep apnea and hypertension.


My recommendation here is that if you think you are not getting the recuperative slumber you need, it would be worth having a sleep assessment done.

Summing it up

On this day of the year which has been formally dedicated to Stress Awareness, perhaps now would be a good opportunity to take stock of how much stress is affecting our lives and how we can make lifestyle changes, like the ones above to help alleviate this stress overload.

Ongoing chronic stress has been linked to high blood pressure and other potentially serious health conditions, so it definitely should not be ignored.

Time for me to get out into nature and find a few trees to gaze up at!!!

I would love to get your comments about this topic, and find out what measures you use to help keep your stress at bay.