Most of us know that stress can take a severe toll on our physical and mental health. One such ill-effect of stress on your health could be high blood pressure. But how exactly does stress lead to hypertension? Read on for more insights into stress, high blood pressure and the ways to control them.
Over the past couple of decades, stress has unfortunately become a constant companion for a lot of people. Be it the long hours at work, the influence of social media, family or money problems, or the recent COVID-19 pandemic, most of us have experienced stress at some point in our lives. What happens when you are unable to cope with it? Can stress cause high blood pressure, heart diseases, and other health problems? Read on to find out how stress can affect your blood pressure, how to recognise it, and how to manage stress in a healthy way.
What is Stress?
Stress can be defined as a feeling of physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension, caused by an incident that makes you feel under pressure, vulnerable, or overwhelmed. Whenever you encounter a situation that you do not know how to deal with or cope with (called a stressor), your body responds by releasing stress hormones like cortisol, catecholamines (epinephrine or adrenaline, and norepinephrine), vasopressin, growth hormone, etc. These hormones trigger a “fight or flight” response in your body; the hormones in your body prepare you to handle the situation by increasing your heart rate, the rate of blood circulation in your body, making more glucose available (to supply your body with energy), etc. that help you deal with the stressor or threat swiftly.
Stress can be caused by several factors in your daily life or major life events (related to your professional or personal life). Stress can be categorised as acute and chronic, depending on how long it lasts.
- Acute stress lasts for a few minutes to hours, whereas chronic stress can range from hours to days to weeks or months. Sometimes, short-term incidents of stress are considered healthy as they can help you grow physically, psychologically, or emotionally as a person when handled in the right way.
- Chronic stress is considered unhealthy as the increased levels of stress hormones in your body can increase your chances of developing health conditions like obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disorders, anxiety, depression, etc.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Stress?
When you experience stress, it activates your sympathetic nervous system (SYNS) which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response you experience when faced with a threat or a challenge. The human body is designed to handle short-term stress, and the activation of the sympathetic nervous system helps your body deal with the stressor. After the stressor is dealt with, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is activated, which helps your body “rest and digest”. This helps your body relax and recover from the stressful incident so it can go back to functioning normally. However, when you experience chronic stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated or triggered constantly, which can lead to ill effects on your health.
The following are some of the physical and mental signs and symptoms of stress you may experience.
- Unexplained pains or aches
- Difficulty breathing
- Upset stomach (diarrhoea or constipation)
- Rapid heartbeat and/or chest pain
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Feeling sick, feverish, or having chills
- Skin problems like rashes and itching
- Increased irritability
- Low self-esteem
- Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
- Disturbed sleep or insomnia
- Feeling tired or “low-energy”
What is the Link Between Stress and High Blood Pressure?
Acute Stress and High Blood Pressure
When you experience acute or short-term stressors your sympathetic nervous system is activated. The SYNS in turn causes your body to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine). Cortisol causes your blood vessels to narrow and constrict, and adrenaline causes your heart rate to go up. This causes your blood to “pump” or circulate faster through your body. Constriction of blood vessels and an increase in heart rate can also cause a temporary and sudden spike in blood pressure levels.
Chronic Stress and High Blood Pressure
Though long-term stress and elevated stress hormone levels are not a direct cause of hypertension, they can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure in the long run. Chronic stress can lead to poor mental health, lack of motivation, and unhealthy coping mechanisms which can lead to excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, a lack of exercise, binge eating, etc. all of which can increase your chances of developing hypertension.
What is the Link Between Stress and Low Blood Pressure?
Sometimes, stress can also cause low blood pressure. After periods of intense stress or anxiety, when your cortisol and adrenaline levels stop dropping and your “fight or flight” response is no longer active, your body starts feeling the after-effects of stress like tiredness and fatigue, which can sometimes lead to low blood pressure levels. Low blood pressure levels can also be caused by the drop in cortisol levels, as your blood vessels are no longer constricted.
How Does Stress Cause High Blood Pressure?
Stress can increase your likelihood of experiencing the following risk factors, which can cause high blood pressure.
Stress can lead to disturbed sleep or insomnia. Getting less than 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night is related to a significantly increased risk of developing hypertension.
Chronic stress can cause fatigue, feelings of low energy, and a lack of motivation, which can result in physical inactivity and a lack of exercise. The resulting increase in weight can lead to elevated blood pressure levels. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting at least 30 minutes of exercise every day to prevent hypertension and lower your blood pressure levels.
Studies suggest that people who are under chronic stress are more likely to smoke, as the nicotine in cigarettes can provide a temporary sense of relaxation. Nicotine can also elevate your heart rate and cause your arteries to harden, and studies have shown that smokers have a very high chance of developing hypertension and heart disease as a result.
Chronic stress can often lead to unhealthy dietary habits like binge eating or stress-eating of junk food. This is because cortisol makes you feel hungry, which can lead to overeating when you are stressed. When you are stressed, you are more likely to eat unhealthy food that is rich in carbohydrates, sugars, and saturated or trans fats, which can increase your cholesterol levels. High blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels can lead to the accumulation of plaque (build-up of fat from your diet and cell debris) in your artery walls. Excess plaque in your arteries can cause them to become stiff and narrow, leading to elevated blood pressure levels. Thus stress-eating can lead to weight gain, obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and hypertension.
Binge drinking and alcoholism is another unhealthy coping mechanism that is observed in people experiencing chronic stress. Consuming more than three drinks can lead to a temporary elevation in your blood pressure levels. Regular consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol increases your risk of developing chronic conditions like hypertension, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, liver and kidney disorders, etc.
What is the Connection Between Anxiety and Blood Pressure?
Chronic stress, if not managed in the right way, can lead to other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Having an anxiety disorder makes you more likely to experience heightened emotions like fear or panic more frequently than is normal, which can cause your body to release stress hormones more often. The increased levels of stress hormones in your body can lead to short but intense spikes in your blood pressure levels. Like stress, anxiety is not a direct cause of hypertension, but the coping mechanisms associated with it and the effects it has on your body (lack of sleep, unhealthy eating habits, etc.) put you at a higher risk of developing hypertension.
How Can You Manage Stress in a Healthy Way?
Your body is built to handle short-term stress, and some form of “good” stress or eustress is essential for your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. However, when the stress lasts longer than a few hours or days and morphs into chronic stress, it becomes detrimental to your health. You can learn to manage it in the following ways to keep your blood pressure down and maintain good health.
Practice relaxation techniques.
- Learning and implementing relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises and meditation on a regular basis can help you feel calmer and make you feel less overwhelmed or stressed.
- Yoga, Tai-chi, and other physical art forms are moderate-intensity exercises that also help you be more mindful. Including them in your daily routine can serve as an effective stress relief.
Aim for better sleep
- Getting around 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night can improve your mental and physical health significantly. However, the quality of your sleep is just as important as its duration, hence try to follow good sleep hygiene (darken your room, turn off the volume on your phone, etc.) to ensure your sleep is undisturbed.
Plan your day in advance
- This can help you manage your time better, and handle your professional, social, and personal life more effectively.
- Whether it is spending more quality time with your family or bonding with your colleagues or friends, building a social circle you can rely on can help lower stress levels.
Spend more time on self-care
- Investing time, money, and resources in hobbies or interests can help improve your mental well-being as well as lowering your stress levels. Take some time out of your daily schedule to make sure you are eating healthy, exercising, and indulging in activities that make you feel relaxed and contribute to your physical, mental, and emotional health.
- If you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed on a regular basis, discuss it with your family, friends, and loved ones. Consulting a healthcare provider like a psychologist or therapist can also be very helpful in managing your stress in a healthy way and avoid the long-term ill-effects of stress on your health.
When to See a doctor?
If you are experiencing any of the signs and symptoms of stress mentioned above in the article, or any symptoms of hypertension like nosebleeds, blurred vision, headaches, etc., consult a physician and a mental health professional, who can help you manage your high blood pressure and stress respectively. Treating stress-induced hypertension early can help prevent it from worsening and any complications it may cause.
Don’t Have Time To Read?
- Stress is a condition where you feel physically, mentally, or emotionally tense or overwhelmed.
- Stress can be of two types based on its duration; acute stress which lasts from a few minutes to hours, and chronic stress which lasts from days to weeks or months.
- Stress can cause symptoms like body pains, breathlessness, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, loss of sleep, changes in mood, upset stomach, fluctuations in weight, low self-esteem, etc.
- Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, which causes your body to release stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, vasopressin, growth hormone, etc.
- Cortisol causes your blood vessels to constrict and adrenaline increases your heart rate, both of which lead to elevated blood pressure levels. This is most often seen in acute stress.
- Chronic stress leads to unhealthy coping behaviours like smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, loss of sleep, binge eating and unhealthy dietary habits which can increase your risk of developing hypertension.
- The aftermath of stress or anxiety can cause low blood pressure levels.
- Like stress, anxiety does not directly cause hypertension, but can lead to temporary spikes in your blood pressure levels.
- Managing stress in a healthy way can prevent its ill effects on your blood pressure and overall health.
- Practising meditation, yoga, relaxation techniques, getting quality sleep, managing your time effectively, building connections with friends and family, and focusing more on self-care can help you lower stress levels.
- Seeking help from family, friends, or a healthcare professional can help you manage your stress in a healthier way and prevent any associated health complications.
- Use the Phable Care App to consult India’s leading cardiologists, order medicines, book lab tests, integrate BP monitors and other devices to get real-time remote care from the comfort of your home. Also, check out our Hypertension Management program which provides 360º care. Let’s treat high blood pressure problems together.
Friendly Asked Questions
When you are stressed (physically or mentally), your body produces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to constrict. This can lead to a short-term increase in your blood pressure. Chronic stress can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking, alcohol consumption, loss of sleep, an unhealthy diet and poor exercise habits, which can cause hypertension in the long term.
Though anxiety does not lead to chronic high blood pressure or hypertension, it can cause short-term and sudden spikes in your blood pressure levels. This may be because of the stress hormones (primarily cortisol) released by your body when you are stressed or anxious.
It is hard to predict how much your blood pressure could rise by when you are anxious or stressed as the number varies from person to person. However, studies suggest that your blood pressure could go up by about 10 mmHg when you are anxious.
Yes, but not directly. Depression can lead to unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, binge eating, and having an unhealthy diet, all of which can significantly increase your risk of developing high blood pressure.
Yes, heightened emotions like anger, fear, worry, etc. can cause your body to release hormones like adrenaline, which can cause your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow. This in turn leads to an increase in your blood pressure levels.
Yes, emotional stress and any kind of heightened emotions (like anger, fear, anxiety, etc.) can take a physical toll on your body (increased heart rate, raised stress hormone levels, etc.). As a result, you may experience low blood pressure when recovering from the incident that caused the emotional or physical stress.
Yes, stress and a regular lack of sleep (less than 7 to 9 hours every night) can lead to elevated blood pressure levels.