How Anxiety Can Cause High Blood Pressure and Other Health Issues

If your heart’s pounding and you feel a bit dizzy, or your face is flushed and you’ve got a headache, you may think that your blood pressure’s high. Unfortunately, according to the American Heart Association, high blood pressure (or hypertension) doesn’t usually present symptoms.

What you may be experiencing, however, is a physiological reaction resulting from chemicals released into your bloodstream when you experience periods of prolonged anxiety which itself can stem from stress.

If you’ve visited a doctor, chances are you’ve had your blood pressure taken. Blood pressure readings always accompany a physical, and it’s something hospitals monitor during your entire stay – whether as a drop-in emergency or longer term care patient.

Most of us know the “ideal” blood pressure number, and many people take medicine to control high blood pressure. But what is it, exactly? And why is maintaining an optimal blood pressure level so important?

Why Blood Pressure Matters

Blood pressure refers to the pressure of blood throughout your body’s circulatory system. Your heart pushes blood through your arteries to give your body oxygen and energy. As the blood moves, it pushes against the side of the vessels. “Blood pressure” refers to the strength of that push against the vessels.

When your blood pressure is too high, it puts an extra strain on your arteries, veins, and heart – that’s what leads to a possible stroke or heart attack.

But hypertension isn’t generally something you feel or notice. It doesn’t produce obvious signs or symptoms, and that’s why it’s always a critical measure of your body’s health whenever you visit the doctor.

What do the numbers mean?

All blood pressure readings have two numbers or levels. The first (or top) number is the systolic pressure. That’s the highest level your blood pressure reaches when your heart beats.

The second (or bottom) number is the diastolic pressure. That’s the lowest level your blood pressure reaches when your heart relaxes between beats.

Ideally, your blood pressure reading should hover close to 120/80; that pressure indicates you’re at a lower risk of heart disease or a stroke.

If it’s 140/90 or higher, you may have hypertension which can lead to:

  • Extra strain on your heart and blood vessels
  • Heart attacks or strokes
  • Heart and kidney disease
  • Certain forms of dementia

Your blood pressure isn’t a constant; it varies by the moment with things like your breathing and heart rate. The AHA, American Society of Hypertension, and the Preventive Cardiovascular Nurses Association all recommend that people diagnosed with or prone to high blood pressure should monitor their blood pressure themselves.

The Importance of Monitoring Your Own Blood Pressure

  • When your doctor takes your blood pressure, she’s just getting a snapshot, not a full picture of trends over time.
  • It’s not always an accurate representation, either. Some people’s blood pressure spikes at the doctor’s office because they’re anxious. Others experience the reverse – normal blood pressure in the office but high blood pressure everywhere else.
  • People who monitor their blood pressure at home are often more successful at controlling it, and the more timely feedback helps!
  • Since high blood pressure doesn’t show symptoms, taking and tracking it regularly helps you determine whether you’ve got it under control – or need to try something else.
  • If you take your blood pressure at home, you may not need as many trips to the doctor.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, for every 100 people with high blood pressure, 70 or more may not have it under control.

Harvard Medical School published a helpful article with more guidance you’re concerned about your blood pressure or suffer from hypertension and are interested in monitoring your blood pressure at home.

What Causes High Blood Pressure?

High blood pressure can result from many different things, some of which we can control, some of which we can’t. We can’t control these factors that can cause hypertension:

  • Age
  • Ethnic origin
  • Family history

But we can control:

  • Sodium (salt) intake
  • Not enough fruit/vegetables
  • Inactivity
  • Too much weight
  • Too much alcohol
  • Stress

Does anxiety or stress negatively affect blood pressure?

First, we should clarify that stress and anxiety are not the same thing, although they are closely related. Stress is caused by an existing factor (the stressor). Anxiety is stress that continues when the stressor is gone. You can learn more about the differences between these two states of being in this article.

Anxiety can absolutely have a negative impact on your blood pressure. As a reaction to situations perceived as stressful or dangerous, anxiety affects how we feel and behave and manifests as physical symptoms that include hypertension. This article is a good resource from Medical News Today.

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The Anatomy of Anxiety

Prolonged stress can lead to anxiety. And prolonged anxiety can affect your blood pressure.

Scientists theorize that the stress reaction occurs in your brain’s amygdala – the region of the brain that controls emotional responses. Neurotransmitters carry impulses to the sympathetic nervous system which kicks your body into alert: your heart and breathing rates increase. Muscles tense. Your body diverts blood from abdominal organs to the brain.

But the physical effects of your body’s reaction to anxiety, when the condition persists, lead to long-term mental and physical health issues.

There’s a growing body of evidence supporting a connection between emotions and physiology. Anxiety has also been linked to chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, gastrointestinal conditions, and respiratory disorders.

And while not a direct causation of hypertension, anxiety does cause a cascade of other physical reactions in your body that do directly affect your blood pressure. Several recent studies have focused on this connection:

A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology concluded that a high level of anxiety maintained after receiving a diagnosis of coronary artery disease (CAD) does constitute a stronger risk of heart attack or death among patients with CAD. Other studies, including this study on the Symptoms of Anxiety and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease, also suggest a correlation between anxiety and fatal coronary heart disease.

Since hypertension is one of the leading causes of heart disease, it’s easy to conclude that anxiety does have a negative effect on high blood pressure.

The challenge that researchers face in trying to conclusively link anxiety directly as a causation of hypertension, is that they can’t. Scientists have, however, definitively proven that anxiety causes physical conditions which lead to high blood pressure. Here’s a breakdown. When you’re anxious:

  • Your heartbeat increases, raising your blood pressure.
  • You become deficient in important minerals like magnesium, which often causes other physical and mental symptoms
  • Your blood pressure will spike temporarily as a result of those physiological responses to stress

While anxiety isn’t directly tied to long term/chronic hypertension, if you suffer from a diagnosed anxiety disorder or have regular episodes, then the high blood pressure that you experience more frequently than people who don’t suffer from anxiety disorders can lead to damaged blood vessels, heart, and kidneys.

Gauge your anxiety

Want to identify your level of anxiety? There’s a neat tool – the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) – that uses clinical indicators to identify whether you’re suffering from mild, moderate, or severe symptoms. This 21-question multiple-choice assessment gauges your anxiety on a self reported basis. You can take it once, or even multiple times throughout the week to identify the causes of your anxiety and, if you’re doing things to control anxiety, determine whether those methods are working. There have been several studies, including this one, to test the BAI’s reliability and have concluded that it’s a fairly consistent tool.

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Manage your anxiety

Of course we wouldn’t suggest skipping a visit to your doctor if you’re concerned that your anxiety levels are dangerously high or if the anxiety you’re experiencing his having a significant negative impact on your life.

If, however, you find yourself having moments of stress that lead to anxious feelings for a period of time, and you want to reduce some of those uncomfortable feelings and maintain a healthier blood pressure as well, there are many options for natural anxiety relief.

  • Deep breathing provides immediate relief – here are seven five-minute meditations to help you find your inner peace.
  • Take a stroll through nature – Here are 11 scientific reasons for which nature helps people to relax
  • Workouts and physical activity – sweat out the stress and anxiety with these six exercises
  • Drink tea – here’s a list of ten types of tea to calm your nerves
  • Lavender – as an oil especially, it’s a natural way to reduce stress and anxiety
  • Pure Dark Chocolate – it reduces cortisol, the stress hormone that causes anxiety symptoms – and other anxiety-reducing foods
  • Other holistic approaches, including using valerian or lemon balm

As always, please do consult your doctor if you find that you’re experiencing prolonged periods of anxiety, as chronic anxiety can lead to serious negative consequences for your physical and mental health.

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