Just reading the word “stress” can you make you feel the unpleasant symptoms that come with it: your pulse quickens and your mood takes a turn for the worse as your body begins to feel torn and frayed. And common wisdom suggests that stress sends your blood pressure skyrocketing, too.
To get the answers to these questions – and more – we spoke with cardiologist and co-director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Blood Pressure Disorders Luke Laffin, MD.
How stress impacts blood pressure
The best place to start, says Dr. Laffin, is by looking at the two categories of stress we experience. “When we think about stress, we have to separate it into two categories: acute and chronic,” he says. While both can cause your blood pressure to go up, they both have different long-term effects.
Acute stress and blood pressure
Acute stress is stress that’s caused by a specific event, like a tough work deadline or having an argument. In these cases, the stress symptoms are present but they dissipate once the stressor is gone. “Acute stress can increase your heart rate and rev up your sympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, raises your blood pressure,” Dr. Laffin says.
How long this lasts varies from person to person. As long as you’re stressed, Dr. Laffin says, your blood pressure remains elevated. “It’s, ultimately, how we cope and deal with the stress,” he adds. “The body can handle these acute changes in blood pressure pretty well. What we’re really worried about is chronically elevated blood pressure.”
Chronic stress and blood pressure
How chronic stress affects blood pressure is less known, says Dr. Laffin. While recent data suggests that our bodies might tend to release more stress hormones with prolonged stress, it’s also about how stress affects our lifestyle habits and choices that can lead to higher blood pressure.
“People who experience chronic stress tend to sleep more poorly, not exercise as much and make bad dietary choices,” he says. “This leads to higher blood pressure and increased risk of stroke or other adverse cardiovascular events.”
When does acute stress become chronic stress?
Because we all handle stress in different ways, it can be hard to look for signs of acute stress turning into chronic stress. “If stressors are lasting for weeks on end, then they risk turning into chronic stressors that need to be addressed,” Dr. Laffin notes.
“It really can come down to how someone perceives stress,” he continues. “Two people can be in the exact same situation and it can be much more stressful to one than the other. Some people just deal better with stress and have healthier coping strategies or support systems.”
How can you lower stress (and blood pressure)?
No matter if you deal with stress well or poorly, you still have to deal with it. According to Dr. Laffin, there are several options to lower your stress levels – and your blood pressure.
- Exercise: “Regular exercise has been shown time and time again as a great way to make people feel better, decrease stress levels and help them adapt to stressful situations,” Dr. Laffin says. The positive effects on your heart health are also important for your blood pressure.
- Sleep: “You have to focus on both sleep quantity and sleep quality,” he says. “We need six-to-eight hours of uninterrupted sleep at night.”
- Removing stressors: Removing the things from your life that are causing your stress is crucial to helping reduce it. Of course, that’s not always easy when your stress is caused by work or a family member. “If your job is the major stressor, it might be time to start looking for a new job,” he says. That won’t work for everyone, of course, so additional steps might be needed to help deal with the stress levels.
- Better diet: Foods high in salt and fat can increase your blood pressure even before stress comes into the mix. Cutting those foods, as well as alcohol, can help keep blood pressure down.
Some people, for a number of reasons, may need to rely on medication to bring stress and blood pressure down. But just like the ability to handle stress, what medication will work best varies from person to person and requires consultation with your healthcare provider.
“If stress and anxiety are leading to a lot of blood pressure elevation, we can try medications called beta-blockers,” says Dr. Laffin. “They’re not the first line of treatment for blood pressure in most people but if stress and anxiety are really driving elevated blood pressure, they can be helpful because they tend to decrease your sympathetic nervous system activity and slow down your heart rate in stressful situations.”
Other medicines designed to be first-line treatments for bringing blood pressure down include calcium channel blockers and angiotensin receptor blockers, he says.