Stress and Its Effects on Blood Pressure

Stress and Its Effects on Blood Pressure

Stress as we all know is a part of our everyday lives.  Some of us are better than others at managing it, but stress is simply part of the human condition.  Many studies have looked at the effects of stress on our bodies, but what about blood pressure?  What is the effect of stress on blood pressure (BP)?

Intuitively we know that stress will raise blood pressure.  But does that result in high blood pressure, or hypertension, which requires treatment by a doctor?  Unfortunately the answer to this question is not easy and straightforward.

As mentioned, we know that stress affects our bodies.  When confronted with a stressful situation we feel emotional discomfort, of course, but our bodies also release hormones into the blood stream.  These stress hormones, adrenaline and cortical, are released in response to what is call the “flight or fight” reaction.  You may remember this term from your earlier biology studies. 

The body’s response to these stress hormones is a survival mechanism that increases heart rate and constricts blood vessels in an effort to increase blood flow to the core of the body as opposed to the extremities.  This, in turn, causes BP to rise.  This rise in BP is only temporary, though, so when the stress is alleviated, blood pressure returns to pre-stress levels.  This type of stress is considered situational and its effects are usually short-lived and go away when the stressful incident is over, causing no serious health problems.

On the other end of the spectrum from situational stress would be chronic stress.  Chronic stress, however, is not thought to cause high BP.  While researchers do not exactly what causes hypertension, we know the contributing factors:  being overweight, poor diet, lack of exercise, and alcohol to name a few.  Since stress can either directly or indirectly cause many of these factors, we can make this link between chronic stress and high blood pressure.  In other words, chronic stress can cause behavioral changes that may increase blood pressure.

Since we can identify many of the factors that may cause hypertension and we know that chronic, as opposed to temporary, stress can increase the occurrence of these risk factors, it’s important to look at the link between stress and blood pressure in terms of behavior.  That is, individuals who suffer from chronic stress should consult not only with their primary care physician, but a behavioral specialist (e.g. psychologists) as well.  By viewing the problem in both physical and behavioral terms, a better course of action can be developed. Over time, this should hopefully allow for more effective management of the stress in one’s life and therefore afford a more healthy and productive existence.