Stress affects the body in many ways, including blood pressure management. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, when left unmanaged, can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, and more (American Heart Association1). Stress is acute or chronic, so each has a unique connection to blood pressure. Exploring these different connections will help us find healthier ways to manage stress and control our blood pressure.

Times of Acute Stress

Acute stress is typically emergent and temporary, such as slamming on your brakes in traffic to avoid an accident. Our body enters flight or fight mode to protect itself during an emergency. It naturally produces stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to initiate specific body functions like increased heart rate, blood flow to muscles, and respiration. This reaction also temporarily raises blood pressure as a result. Responses like these are necessary for quick reactions. Once the stressor passes, the body signals to return to a pre-stressed state. According to Cleveland Clinic2, “It’s normal to experience changes in blood pressure throughout the day, and your body is typically skilled at managing them.” However, when stressors stick around for long periods, it can cause other problems with blood pressure.

Prolonged Bouts of Chronic Stress

As stressful situations pile up or continue, they start to become chronic. American Heart Association3 states, “Fight or flight is a valuable response when we are faced with an imminent threat that we can handle by confronting or fleeing. However, our modern world contains many stressful events that we can’t handle with those options. Chronic, or constant, stress causes our bodies to go into high gear on and off for days or weeks at a time.” Many connections between stress and blood pressure still need more research, but what we do know is that how we cope with chronic stress makes an impactful, long-term difference. Poor coping with prolonged stress can lead to unhealthy habits involving sleep, nutrition, exercise, and substance use. These unhealthy habits are directly related to raising blood pressure and increasing the risk of hypertension.

Healthy Ways to Manage Stress and Blood Pressure

Get Moving. Physical activity is one of the best ways to manage blood pressure and stress. Talk with your doctor before beginning an exercise routine or if it’s been a while since you’ve consistently exercised. Start small with an activity you enjoy and gradually increase duration or intensity.

Relax. As feelings of stress continue, you must find ways to relax your mind and body. Even if you don’t have large chunks of free time for relaxing activities, try practicing quick relaxation techniques whenever you notice stress continuing or becoming overwhelming. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises, grounding exercises, or guided meditations are great for slowing down your heart rate, respiration, and racing thoughts. They can help you thoughtfully respond during stressful times rather than immediately or emotionally react.

Prioritize Sleep and Nutrition. Sleep and nutrition are two of our body’s top energy sources. However, our sleep and nutrition typically take the biggest hits when we are experiencing chronic stress. Prioritizing these can help keep your focus, energy, and immune system strong, along with many more health benefits.

Evaluate the Situation. Think about your specific stressors and evaluate them. Which situations can you control? Which do you need help from others to manage? And which situations are out of your control? Labeling them can help you see where to spend your time and energy. It also allows you to focus on the possibility of many solutions rather than hyper-focusing on the stress itself.

Seek Support. Sometimes, it helps to have extra support in stressful situations, especially ones we cannot control. Whether we seek support from trusted friends, family members, or licensed professionals, it can be a valuable resource for added encouragement and connection.

Continue Reading May 2024 Newsletter: Reshaping Your Workout Routine Post-Pandemic