Stress and The Body's Physiological Response
When you encounter a stressful situation, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that briefly increase your blood pressure and heart rate. In addition, your arteries become narrower in response to the release of these hormones. This is a normal reaction that prepares your body to respond to danger or a stressful event. However, once the source of stress is gone, blood pressure should return to normal. Temporary surges in blood pressure due to stressors are normal, but chronic high blood pressure can damage the body. Since chronic stress can indirectly cause high blood pressure, it's important to identify contributing factors and management techniques.
First, we will examine the difference between acute and chronic stress, as one directly impacts blood pressure while the other is more indirectly associated with high blood pressure.
Acute Stress and Blood Pressure
Acute stress is temporary anxiety brought on by a particularly stressful incident. This type of stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "fight or flight" response. The fight or flight response occurs in response to a threat or danger, such as encountering an aggressive wild animal. It is a survival mechanism that prepares the body to face or run from a threat. This is a beneficial response in dangerous situations. However, if this response is activated frequently and for prolonged periods, it can negatively affect your physical and mental health.
Running late for an important meeting, giving a big presentation, losing something valuable, or trying to meet a deadline can activate the sympathetic nervous system and cause symptoms of acute stress. When these stressful situations occur, your body's natural physiological reaction is to raise your blood pressure. When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, several changes occur in the body that help prepare the body for a response to the stressor. These changes include:
- Increased heart rate: Your heart rate increases to pump more blood to muscles and organs that might be needed to face or retreat from the threat.
- Reduced digestive activity: The sympathetic nervous system slows digestion, freeing up more energy for the muscles and organs.
- Blood vessel constriction: By constricting blood vessels in the skin and internal organs, blood is directed to the necessary muscles and organs.
- Airway dilation: Airways open to allow more oxygen to enter the body and increase blood flow to the necessary muscles and organs.
- More glucose production: The liver creates more glucose, giving the body more energy to respond.
When the stressor is removed, your symptoms should go away fairly quickly, and your blood pressure should return to normal as you recover from the stressful episode. This is generally not harmful. However, if you already suffer from chronic high blood pressure, repeated short bursts of acute stress could be harmful to your health and even lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Chronic Stress & Blood Pressure:
The relationship between chronic stress and high blood pressure is more complex. Chronic stress is a long-term reaction to persistent life stressors such as chronic illness, financial hardships, and interpersonal conflict. While more research is necessary to understand the connection between chronic stress and high blood pressure, studies point to the fact that stress alone is not a cause of hypertension. Instead, the habits and behaviors you engage in as a response to stress can lead to hypertension. When stressed, you may turn to behaviors that provide temporary relief from anxiety, but many of these behaviors can be harmful to your health. For example, people under chronic stress may drink too much alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or eat unhealthy foods to cope. Additionally, stress can impact our sleep patterns, leading to less sleep and poor quality sleep. When you're stressed, it's difficult to cycle through the four stages of sleep, each of which play a critical role in achieving high quality sleep. To read more about the four stages of sleep, check out Maximize the Four Stages of Sleep. Since stress can alter your lifestyle choices and raise your risk of developing health problems, learning healthy coping mechanisms is critical to combating stress-related health issues.
How Can You Control Blood Pressure in Response to Stress?
If you're concerned about your blood pressure, it's important to eliminate significant sources of stress in your life. However, since it may not always be possible to do this, learning healthy ways to cope with stress is critical to controlling blood pressure. By responding differently to stress, you can reduce adverse health outcomes.
Here are some ways to manage stress:
- Learn to say no: While it can be uncomfortable, learning to say no is an important part of managing stress. Many of us often take on too much because we are afraid to say no.
- Ask for help from others: Don't be afraid to ask for assistance, especially if you feel overwhelmed.
- Rearrange Your Schedule If Possible: While it's not always possible to adjust your schedule, even minor changes can go a long way.
- Meditate: Meditation has been shown to alleviate stress.
- Get Enough Sleep: Daily stressors can seem overwhelming when you don't get enough sleep. However, it's not just the length of sleep that matters. Quality is just as important. If you have trouble sleeping, consider taking an all-natural, non-habit-forming supplement, such as Healthycell's REM Sleep.
- Modify how you perceive difficulties: break down projects and tasks into smaller pieces rather than focusing on the big picture. Sometimes, the big picture can be overwhelming.
- Engage in regular physical activity: Strive for 150 minutes or more per week of moderate-intensity exercise.
- Add a heart health supplement: Healthycell's Heart & Vascular Health supplement supports healthy cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure levels for a healthy heart and vascular system. Read Supplements That Lower Triglycerides and Supplements That Lower Blood Pressure to learn more about the benefits of taking a daily heart health supplement.
- Reduce your alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with high blood pressure. Try to limit your consumption.
- Stop smoking: Smoking is one of the leading causes of high blood pressure. The good news is that, after quitting, you should see improvements in your blood pressure fairly quickly.
- Maintain a healthy weight: being overweight or obese is associated with hypertension. Try to maintain a healthy BMI.
- Follow a healthy, balanced diet: When stressed, it's easy to gravitate toward highly processed foods that are high in fat, sodium, and sugar. These foods can contribute to a whole host of problems, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Instead, try to eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meat, low-fat dairy, and drink plenty of water.
To help you manage your blood pressure, you should consider using an at-home blood pressure monitor, like the OMRON Blood Pressure Monitor, Upper Arm Cuff. Compared to monitors that attach to the finger or wrist, a cuff-style blood pressure monitor, like OMRON's Blood Pressure Monitor, Upper Arm Cuff, is more accurate and reliable. It's also important to keep a record of your blood pressure readings in a log book so you can track any significant changes. To learn more about ways to monitor your blood pressure, check out Is Blood Pressure Higher in the Morning?
In summary, we know that acute stress can cause short-term physiological changes in the body, which should resolve once the stressful event is over. Under normal circumstances, this is not harmful. However, if you already suffer from hypertension, repeated short bursts of acute stress can be harmful to your health.
While more research is needed, chronic stress alone is not a significant contributing factor in the development of high blood pressure. Rather, unhealthy habits and behaviors in response to stress can significantly increase blood pressure and lead to hypertension.
About the Author
Dr. Giampapa is a world-renowned medical doctor, inventor, and surgeon specializing in anti-aging medicine. He recently received a nomination for the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking stem cell research, as well as the Edison Award for the Healthycell nutritional supplement for cell health. He was also awarded the A4M Science & Technology award for his development of the BioMarker Matrix Profile – the first computer program to measure aging.