When it looks like you’re becoming visibly stressed, a well-meaning person may ask you to consider your blood pressure. It’s a well-known fact that stress is a cause of hypertension – or is it? What’s behind this commonly held notion?

The short answer is that yes, there is a connection between high blood pressure and stress. The longer answer is that we don’t exactly know how it works. We do have evidence that stress can cause a short-term bump in blood pressure. When it comes to the longer-term impact, we’re not so sure.

When we’re faced with stress, our body enters what’s commonly known as “fight or flight mode.” It helped prehistoric humans escape predators, and it still powers our responses today. Adrenaline and cortisol surge, causing the heart to pump faster. Blood vessels narrow to direct blood flow to the most important parts of the body.

It’s this reaction in the heart and blood vessels that can temporarily cause your blood pressure to rise. Once the stressor is gone and you’ve calmed down, it should return to normal again. This sort of event, known as situational stress, is fairly easy to handle with the “fight or flight” response. It’s when you face these short bursts of stress regularly or the stressor doesn’t go and the stress becomes chronic that the body has trouble coping.

Most people aren’t running away from lions on a regular basis. Their stress comes from things like mortgages and energy bills and all those ongoing modern challenges that can’t be ignored. What does this kind of chronic stress mean for your blood pressure? We don’t really know. Researchers are still trying to figure it out.

Still, if you want to avoid those short term bouts of hypertension, it doesn’t hurt to try to manage stress more effectively. On the bright side, at least one method of alleviating stress should also improve your blood pressure: exercise. Regular, vigorous exercise, even in relatively short bursts, can lower your blood pressure and dramatically improve your overall mood.

Stress can also lead to bad habits when it comes to eating, drinking and smoking, all of which are hypertension risk factors. We may not have a full understanding of the relationship between high blood pressure and stress, but if you can identify and try to avoid stressful situations, that may be helpful.

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