Many people have misconceptions about high blood pressure. That may help explain why only about half of those with the condition have it under control. One misconception is that stress and anxiety cause high blood pressure. A potential contributor to this notion is the disorder’s medical name, hypertension, which some people misinterpret to mean too much (hyper) emotional stress (tension), according to an article in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.
The word hypertension came into general use around 1895, and its “tension” refers to the physical tenseness caused by excessive pressure of the pumping blood on increasingly inflexible artery walls. Several studies show that, despite the explanations their doctors may give them, many people with hypertension nevertheless associate the disorder with emotional distress and think their blood pressure goes up primarily when they feel stressed. In light of that, some of them hope that stress reduction techniques will control their blood pressure, and promoters of such techniques often encourage this idea.
How stress affects blood pressure
It’s not illogical to think that stress could contribute to hypertension. After all, stress and anxiety are among the many psychological and physiological factors that can boost blood pressure—temporarily. However, blood pressure normally fluctuates throughout the day, and after such rises it falls back to its usual range.
Moreover, chronic stress (especially when combined with a sense of lack of control) is associated with poor health, notably coronary artery disease. But the research concerning hypertension is far from clear. Some studies have found that certain stress reduction methods (such as meditation) can lower blood pressure somewhat, at least for a while. However, several research reviews have concluded that the evidence overall is mixed and inconsistent and that any benefit is likely to be modest.
There are many good reasons to reduce excessive stress or at least learn to cope with it. Besides its adverse effects on the body and mood, stress may encourage unhealthy behavior, such as smoking, overeating, and drinking too much alcohol, which among other things can increase blood pressure. But as the Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes paper warns, if people think that stress management is enough to treat their hypertension, that’s a concern since it may distract them from effective treatments such as diet, exercise, weight control, and medication.
Bottom line: If you have hypertension, it can’t hurt to try stress management techniques, but only as an adjunct to proven anti-hypertension strategies.