Nerves, Anxiety, And Stress And Their Impact On Your Blood Pressure

It’s normal to feel stressed and anxious from time to time, but have you ever wondered how it affects your blood pressure? Understanding your symptoms and knowing when to seek help can protect your long-term health and lower your risk of developing health conditions caused by high blood pressure.

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What is high blood pressure?

Blood pressure is a measure of the pressure of blood as it pushes against the walls of your arteries (the blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart to the rest of the body).

Two numbers are used to measure blood pressure:

  • Diastolic blood pressure (the pressure in your arteries between heartbeats)

  • Systolic blood pressure (the pressure in your arteries during a heartbeat)

Normal blood pressure is 120/80 or lower. High blood pressure is usually diagnosed after three or more readings where your blood pressure is higher than normal.

High blood pressure is often discovered during routine medical check-ups as it rarely causes any symptoms. Left untreated, it can cause a number of serious health problems, including:

  • Heart attack

  • Stroke

  • Organ damage

  • Eye problems

High blood pressure usually develops over time and your risk increases as you get older. However, numerous factors elevate your risk of developing high blood pressure, including lifestyle choices like inactivity and poor diet; health conditions like diabetes and obesity; and high levels of nervousness, stress, and anxiety.

What’s the link between nervousness, stress, and high blood pressure?

We all know what it’s like to feel nervous, usually about something challenging like an important work interview or public presentation. It’s normal to get sweaty palms, a dry mouth, “butterflies” in the pit of your stomach, and a pounding heart. But can nervousness cause high blood pressure?

Your body reacts to nervousness in a way that’s beneficial to you. That surge of adrenaline can help you perform at your best and help you deal with the challenges you’re facing. In essence, nervousness puts your body in “fight or flight” mode — your body’s response to acute stress.

Besides the usual physical sensations you have when you’re nervous, your body also generates more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol¹. This surge in hormones causes your heart rate to rising and your blood vessels to narrow (vasoconstriction), which leads to elevated blood pressure that is usually temporary. Once the immediate stress of the situation goes away, your blood pressure returns to normal.

How does stress affect your blood pressure?

You might experience short-term stress when you feel under pressure, overwhelmed, uncertain, or concerned about something. It’s normal to feel stressed occasionally, perhaps because you need to meet a major deadline at work or you’re going through a stressful process, like moving house. When you are stressed, much like when you are feeling nervous about something, your body produces more cortisol and adrenaline, causing your blood pressure to spike.

Since stress is usually caused by an external trigger, its effect on the body is temporary. However, chronic stress or anxiety can lead to long-term health problems and damage to your body.

Can anxiety raise your blood pressure?

While it’s common to hear “stress” and “anxiety” used interchangeably, they are different things. While stress is your reaction to external triggers, anxiety is a persistent feeling of tension or dread even when there is no immediate cause. It can be very disruptive to your daily life and wellbeing.

The relationship between chronic anxiety and high blood pressure is complex. Anxiety causes blood pressure to spike temporarily — this can lead to physical damage similar to that caused by chronic high blood pressure when it happens repeatedly over a long period of time.

Research² also suggests that long-term anxiety can cause vascular resistance (resistance in the blood vessel) to persistently increase, leading to hypertension. It is also thought that the sympathetic nervous system (part of your nervous system that’s responsible for involuntary responses) is activated more easily in people with chronic anxiety, increasing water and sodium retention and causing high blood pressure. These are just some of the mechanisms that contribute to high blood pressure in a person with long-term anxiety.

It has also been shown that people who suffer from long-term anxiety are more likely to make unhealthy lifestyle choices³ that contribute to high blood pressure. Research⁴ shows that patients who have anxiety disorders are more likely to engage in substance abuse and addictive behaviors, including smoking, drinking alcohol, or consuming unhealthy foods.

How to maintain a healthy blood pressure

Short-term nervousness and stress can cause temporary blood pressure spikes that are generally harmless, but chronic stress and anxiety can cause damage over time and increase your risk of developing high blood pressure.

Several strategies can reduce the frequency of blood pressure spikes and ease long-term stress and anxiety, helping you to maintain healthy blood pressure.

1. Recognize the signs and symptoms of short-term stress

Familiarizing yourself with the physical and psychological symptoms of short-term nervousness and stress is the first step in taking back control, allowing you to identify triggers and implement coping mechanisms.

Common physical symptoms of short-term nervousness and stress include:

  • “Butterflies” in your stomach

  • Nausea

  • Constipation or diarrhea

  • Tense muscles

  • Headaches

  • Sore eyes or blurry vision

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Loss of appetite or increased hunger

Nervousness and stress can also impact the way you feel and behave, so you might notice these additional symptoms:

  • Feeling tense or wound-up

  • Indecisiveness

  • Irritability and short temper

  • Racing thoughts

  • Loneliness

  • Crying

  • Desire to eat unhealthy foods, smoke, or drink alcohol

2. Recognize when you might have anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling that many of us have from time to time, but it’s considered a mental health problem when it affects your day-to-day life and wellbeing.

Symptoms of anxiety can be the same as short-term stress, but you will experience them more often over an extended time. Anxiety can be debilitating and can damage your physical and mental health, so it’s important to realize when you might need professional help. Consider speaking to your doctor or a mental health professional if:

  • You’ve lost interest in life and things you used to enjoy

  • Symptoms are long-lasting and severe

  • You’re having trouble concentrating or remembering things

  • You’re struggling to sleep at night

  • You feel concerned about things that might happen in the future

  • You avoid putting yourself in situations that could make you feel anxious

3. Manage your response to stress and anxiety

Take steps to deal with stress when it arises to help keep your blood pressure in check. Here are some tips for managing stress and anxiety:

  1. Identify triggers and minimize them where possible

  2. Manage your time and give yourself the best chance of getting things done

  3. Try not to take on too many tasks and ask for help if needed

  4. Put things in perspective and accept there are some things you can’t control

  5. Take time for yourself — see loved ones, get a massage, practice yoga, or do a hobby

4. Get plenty of sleep

When you’re stressed, you might start going to sleep later or getting up earlier (or both) and when you do sleep, you might feel restless. The link between stress and insufficient sleep is known as the “stress-sleep cycle⁵,” where stress prevents high-quality sleep and insufficient sleep increases stress.

Not getting enough high-quality sleep can increase long-term damage from high blood pressure⁶, including elevating your risk of cardiovascular problems. This is because:

  1. Blood pressure is more likely to spike in the morning after a night of insufficient sleep

  2. Blood pressure dips during normal sleep, so not getting enough sleep prevents this from happening

Adults are recommended to get at least seven hours⁷ of sleep each night. To help you get enough sleep and lower your risk of high blood pressure, create a good nighttime routine. Avoid distractions like your phone, TV, or books, and try to go to sleep at the same time each night.

5. Consume a healthy and well-balanced diet

Many people turn to their favorite foods for comfort when they’re feeling stressed and anxious, but comfort foods tend to be highly processed, containing lots of salt, sugar, and saturated fat.

Instead of reaching for your favorite snack, try to consume healthy and nutritious foods. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a heart-healthy diet to help keep your blood pressure in check, with fruits, leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy, lean meats, and fish.

6. Avoid alcohol

Regular, excessive alcohol consumption can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure⁸ and lead to life-threatening heart conditions⁹. Keep to the recommended alcohol limits to lower your risk of high blood pressure: two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

7. Exercise

Exercise is important for maintaining healthy body weight and preventing obesity, a risk factor for high blood pressure. Regular exercise can also help reduce anxiety and stress¹⁰, making it easier for you to lead a healthy lifestyle and maintain healthy blood pressure.

The lowdown

Short-term nervousness or stress can lead to a corresponding spike in blood pressure. This is temporary and your blood pressure will return to normal once the thing causing you stress is over. Most of the time, these spikes will have little impact on your overall health; however, chronic anxiety can cause frequent blood pressure spikes that lead to damage similar to chronic high blood pressure.

Ongoing stress and anxiety can also make you more likely to adopt unhealthy lifestyle habits that increase your risk of developing high blood pressure.

Learning how to recognize the symptoms of stress and anxiety and seek help when you need it can help you limit or avoid health risks caused by high blood pressure. A focus on overall health and wellness, including eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and sleeping well can help you maintain healthy blood pressure in the long term.

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