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How does stress affect blood pressure?

Stress definitely affects our bodies. In addition to the emotional discomfort we feel when faced with a stressful situation, our bodies react by releasing stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) into the blood. These hormones prepare the body for the “fight or flight response” by making the heart beat faster and constricting blood vessels to get more blood to the core of the body instead of the extremities. Constriction of blood vessels and increase in heart rate does raise blood pressure, but only temporarily – when the stress reaction goes away, blood pressure returns to its pre-stress level. This is called situational stress, and its effects are generally short-lived and disappear when the stressful event is over.

“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 (constant) stress causes our bodies to go into high gear on and off for days or weeks at a time. The links between chronic stress and blood pressure are not clear.

This kind of stress is a difficult concept to pin down and measure, which is one of the problems researchers run into when trying to answer the question about stress and high blood pressure. Without a universal definition of chronic stress, stress levels are hard to measure and responses to stress vary from person to person.

Stress, even chronic stress, does not cause high blood pressure. The fact is that experts don’t know what causes high blood pressure, but contributing factors include being overweight, eating a diet high in sodium, being physically inactive and drinking too much alcohol. And people who are under stress may be more likely to eat too much, drink too much alcohol and be less active.

So, how does stress affect blood pressure? Situational stress causes changes in the body – increased heart rate and blood vessel constriction – that increase blood pressure until the situation passes, at which time blood pressure returns to its previous level. On the other hand, chronic stress can affect behaviors such as over-eating unhealthy food, not taking time to exercise or relax or drinking too much alcohol that may, in turn, increase blood pressure.

 

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