In cartoons and films, characters who are highly stressed or angry will often have high blood pressure. This is a tool that the writers can use in order to quickly convey a character’s stressed personality and at the same time get a laugh. Whenever we hear an exasperated wife say to her husband: ‘remember your blood pressure!’ we know that she’s the put-upon type and that he’s constantly railing and ranting.
But how about the reality? Are stress and high blood pressure really linked? And if so, to what degree and what causes this connection?
Are Stress and High Blood Pressure Linked?
The short answer to this question is yes. Stress and high blood pressure are linked in many ways and as soon as you find yourself getting acutely stressed, your blood pressure will rise. What’s more, if you are chronically stressed (i.e. if you suffer from ongoing stress) then you will be likely to have chronically higher blood pressure too.
What Causes the Link Between Stress and High Blood Pressure?
So what causes this link? In fact there are several ways in which stress and high blood pressure are correlated, many of which are causative as well (meaning that one causes the other). Here we will look at five examples of things that cause this link.
When you are stressed this increases your production of the stress hormones norepinephrine and adrenaline. It is well known that these substances can increase the heart rate and are responsible for what is known as the ‘fight or flight response’. As the heart is the ‘pump’ that creates blood pressure and pushes it around our body, any increase in heart rate will automatically result in an increase in blood pressure.
But it’s not the heart rate that increases alone. At the same time, an increase in stress will also cause vasoconstriction. What this means is that your blood vessels (arteries and veins) will become narrower thus creating a smaller passageway for blood to get through. Again this necessarily increases blood pressure because it means that you have the same amount of blood only now packed into a relatively smaller amount of space. These two factors alone are more than enough to result in a strong link between stress and blood pressure.
It’s important to recognize that this process in itself is not actually a bad thing. The whole idea of the stress response is that it puts the body in a state where it will be better able to deal with danger. This makes us hyper sensitive, more aware, stronger and faster. An increase in blood pressure actually helps this process, because it means that blood and oxygen will be more quickly and efficiently delivered to the brain and the muscles. The problem with chronic stress though is that this state continues for too long – indefinitely even – and this ends up placing a heavy strain on the heart.
Research shows that stress can also elevate blood viscosity. This term refers to the actual thickness of the blood and the reason this happens is that the body is once again preparing itself for a skirmish by making the blood more likely to clot should you get cut or injured. This can prevent excessive blood-loss and in principle would be beneficial in the short term. Thicker blood is another way that stress and blood pressure are linked – because more pressure is required to circulate a thick substance around the body versus a thin one.
Stress can also increase bad cholesterol (LDL) though it’s not fully understood how or why. One theory is that stress increases energy in the body which when unused can end up getting converted back to fatty deposits. At the same time, stress can also lead to bad eating habits due to hormonal changes and this can once again increase blood pressure.
As mentioned above, stress can also encourage bad eating habits, which also leads to high blood pressure. When we are stressed, an increase in cortisol causes our body to use up available blood sugar which makes us more likely to want to eat junk food. This combined with the fact that eating comfort food is one way to feel better when you’re very stressed means that you’re far more likely to raid the fridge when you have high anxiety.