We're frequently told that great amounts of stress in our lives are not good. Stress can cause physical and mental effects that can be harmful in the long term including high blood pressure. We know that high blood pressure is bad for us but what exactly does high blood pressure mean and how can stress be the cause?
When we're in a stressful situation our bodies produce a surge of hormones. These hormones, such as adrenaline, cause your heart to beat harder and faster and your blood vessels to narrow preparing the body for fight or flight. As well as this physiological response to stress, long term we may find our behaviour changes accordingly, which can lead to a steady increase in blood pressure.
After a tricky couple of years for us all, including the global coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and related work worries, it's understandable that we may be suffering from stress a little more than we normally would, however it's treatable and support is out there should you need it.
Behavioural Effects of Stress
Stress alone won't cause heart and circulatory issues but enduring stress long-term can lead us to start exhibiting some unhealthy habits which can increase blood pressure, known as hypertension.
- Smoking. It's ironic that people who smoke will often have a cigarette to calm their nerves before or after a stressful event. Even those who don't consider themselves 'smokers' may fancy a cheeky one before a big work presentation or nerve-wracking blind date. But nicotine and other harmful chemicals in cigarettes actually raise blood pressure, narrow arteries, harden their walls, cause the heart to beat faster and make blood more likely to clot. This could put you at risk of a future stroke or heart attack. Not exactly the healthy products they were marketed as in the 1950s!
- High consumption of alcohol. The first drink after a heavy day make help put stress on ice and make your worries disappear for a moment but more than one or two drinks a day can cause high blood pressure - especially if you're over 35 - and stress is classed as the most common alcohol-related health issue. Cue the potential for heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease and vascular dementia if you're a binge drinker. Not just this physiological effect, but getting drunk and being hungover the next day can make stress seem more intense and end up making you feel much worse than you did.
- Unhealthy diet. A diet of high sodium, or salt, can cause your body to retain fluids which in turn can increase blood pressure. Junk foods such as burgers, chips, pizza and fried food loaded with saturated fat, cholesterol and salt are all guilty culprits. On the flip side, a diet of low potassium helps balance out the salt in your cells so potassium-rich foods including banana, avocado, lentils and potatoes are all good sodium fighters. Enjoy that burger every so often but make sure you eat healthily the rest of the week for good heart health.
Emotional Effects of Stress
When we consider that stress is the feeling of being under pressure and overwhelmed, it's no surprise that there are damaging emotional side effects that come with those unwanted feelings.
- Anxiety. Anxiety and stress are often confused but it's easy to spot the difference if you remember that stress itself isn't a medical condition but a sign that something else is wrong. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a mental health condition that can be caused by stress. Symptoms can be very similar: fatigue, insomnia, loss of concentration and increased irritability; but, quite often, anxiety can be a a feeling of fear about events that haven't yet happened or maybe won't ever happen. When stress occurs over a long period of time, the increased related hormones, such as cortisol, raise the blood pressure and can lead to clinical anxiety.
- Depression. A landmark study carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the 1970s tested 3,000 people with normal blood pressure over the course of seven to 16 years. When the blood pressure and medical records of the subjects were checked in on years later, researchers found that those who suffered from severe depression were up to more likely than the others to develop high blood pressure. Two to three times more likely, in fact. It appears that when the body and mind are going through deep emotional unrest, your blood pressure could bear the consequences.
Physical Consequences of Long-Term Stress
With the swell of hormones and surge in heart rate that happens when we experience a stressful situation it's no surprise that all that takes its toll on the body.
- Weight gain. If you're suffering from work stress and have seen your clothes getting tighter in recent months then it might not be coincidental. When we're put under stress, the increased levels of cortisol cause us to be more hungry and thus we're suddenly eater bigger portions and perhaps even bad-for-us, more convenient food. And it's not just the appetite but where you put the weight on that's affected. Studies show that stress and cortisol cause fat to deposit around the middle hence why your belt might be on looser notches these days. This is referred to as 'toxic fat'. Extra weight around the core and abdominals is linked to heart disease, heart attack and strokes.
- Insomnia. Most of us will experience the odd sleepless night in our lives but if sleep is affected for more than three nights a week, for three months then you might have chronic insomnia. One of the most common causes is stress or anxiety. The feeling of not being able to drop off to sleep or staying awake due to feelings of worry might be well-known, and of course the more we worry during the early hours, the less likely we are to nod off and so the cycles continues. By changing your sleep habits you can ensure you're giving yourself the best possible chance: go to bed and wake up at the same times every day regardless of how you're slept the night before, carve out some relaxing time an hour before bed such as taking a bath or listening to a soothing sleep story on Yours app, make sure your room is dark, quiet and bed is comfortable and getting exercise during the day will help prepare the body and mind.
Ways to Deal with Stress
Stress triggers can be out of our control but you may be surprised at how many factors can be changed for easier days and nights with some simple steps.
- Eliminate Stressors. It might seem to be easier said than done but stress-inducers such as a demanding boss, crazy workload, general life disorganisation or an argument with a partner can all be dealt with. Write a list of what's troubling you the most and tackle each point one by one. You can try talking to your boss or HR department at work with job woes and a plan of action can be put in place. You'll find that the act of making lists and getting issues off your chest will make life seem more manageable and if you follow this up by talking to and sharing your feelings with your boss, partner or even a GP, you'll find that support is out there. You don't have to face your triggers alone.
- Lifestyle changes. There's likely to be a long list of habits we wish we could change that may have started off as a New Year's resolution but quickly faded. We bet those things still niggling at the back of your head somewhere. There's never a better than now to start going to bed earlier, saying no to that night out you could do without, or starting the meditation course that's been on your mind! Try to prioritise your health, try saying no more often and take more me time during the week to give yourself the focus. Your body and mind will thank you for it.
- Talk to a therapist. An hour with a mental health professional or therapist no longer comes with a stigma of being 'mentally unfit' or a self-indulgent thing to do. Quite the opposite, talking to someone who is not within your circle of friends and family can help give some valuable perspective on your problems and it's often easier to give advice than take your own - allow a trained professional to do just that.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine. While that double espresso at work might feel like a quick fix or lure of a big Friday night out might feel like it should ease your week's worries, it will only make your stress worse in the long term. For one, caffeine stimulates your cortisol-type fight or flight response which is where some people get the coffee 'jitters' from. This can make anxiety worse. While alcohol is a depressant and increases the possibilities of physical and mental health problems by altering the delicate balance of brain chemicals and processes. The key is everything in moderation!
- Slow down. These days life is lived at the kinds of speed our grandparents and great-grandparents would've shuddered at. Take some time out to consider that not everything can be as urgent as you think. Limiting time spent on social media or responding to work emails or messages from friends can help. Choose walking over taking the car or public transport where you can and learning breathing techniques - like those featured on Yours app - can be crucial for chilling out during those stressful moments.
- Try eating healthier. Think of your body as a machine needing fuel and try to put in only the best you can. Five-a-day when it comes to fruit and vegetables and limiting red meat and saturated fats will make us feel more energised, less tired and help us to be firing on all cylinders, mentally and physically, when we need it.
- Practice mindfulness. Whether you're new to mindfulness practice or a seasoned pro, we could all benefit from more meditation and yoga proven to calm the nervous system and aid relaxation. The underpinned mantras of stretching, deep breathing and general focus on oneself at regular intervals throughout the week can make your worries seems much less scary than they once did. Yours is a great place to delve in with beginners courses with quick and easy videos and techniques to view and use on the move.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Much Does Stress Raise BP?
It's no secret that stress can cause blood pressure spikes - often dramatically - in the short term; after all, that's exactly what our hormones are there for. It's a sign our bodies are in tip-top working order and every body is different. After the stressful event, blood pressure should come down, but long-term, these all-too regular spikes or longer bouts of stress can take their toll and lead to other health conditions of behavioural symptoms we'd want to avoid.
How Can I Lower My Blood Pressure from Stress?
There are plenty of simple measure you can start taking today to start easing your blood pressure from stress: work on your time management, start consuming a healthy diet, learn breathing techniques to relax, talk to someone - either a friend or professional to unload your worries - and do more of what you love, whether that's swimming, reading or cooking to ease tension. Remember white-coat hypertension, when blood pressure is only heightened from being amongst doctors or in a clinical setting isn't uncommon. Try to relax if this occurs or take your blood pressure at home using an inexpensive machine - talk to your GP.
Is High Blood Pressure Normal When Stressed?
Yes! If we didn't have an increase in blood pressure when we are in the middle of, or anticipating a stressful situation, our bodies wouldn't be working properly. It's simply our hormones doing their job. Try not to worry about short-term leaps - blood pressure spikes will come down when you're feeling more calm and there are plenty of relaxation techqniues you can try to help bring it down.