Baylor College of Medicine News

Control anxiety to stave off spikes in blood pressure

Feeling anxious? Learn how to control it because stress may lead to temporary spikes in blood pressure that can add up to big problems, said a Baylor College of Medicine clinical psychologist.

There is no evidence that high anxiety and stress cause long-term high blood pressure but they can cause a short-term increase, said Dr. Melinda Stanley, professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at BCM.

"If you have a lot of episodes of anxiety and increased blood pressure, these can cause physical damage that is comparable to chronic high blood pressure," she said.

Serious medical condition

High blood pressure is a serious medical condition that can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney damage, vision loss and other health issues.

Anxiety and stress are also associated with an increased risk of unhealthy behaviors that can produce high blood pressure, like smoking, excessive drinking and overeating.

While people with chronic high blood pressure often do not have any symptoms, many who experience sudden spikes in blood pressure during times of stress will feel their heart race and blood pulse. However, these symptoms should subside as the anxiety eases, said Stanley, who is also an investigator with the Health Services Research and Development Center of Excellence at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.

Signs of stress, anxiety

It's also important to recognize the signs of stress and anxiety. These include difficulty sleeping, fatigue, persistent worry, gastrointestinal symptoms and muscle aches and pains.

Controlling stress and anxiety is the best approach to controlling temporary spikes in blood pressure. Healthy practices like getting plenty of sleep, eating well, exercising and avoiding too much alcohol can help to keep anxiety in check, Stanley said.

Beyond this, some people benefit from anxiety reducing techniques such as deep breathing, positive imagery and meditation or yoga. Others need to develop a new way of thinking to keep stress under control.

Perception or reality?

"Sometimes people experience more stress than is warranted as a result of inaccurate perception of a situation," Stanley said. For example if someone makes a mistake at work, he or she may begin to think, "I'm no good at my job; I'm going to lose my job."

Trying to identify this unrealistic way of thinking and changing it can be useful as can self-encouragement, Stanley said.

A practice not to engage in, she advised, is avoidance of a situation that is causing stress. For example, if people are worried about money, they may avoid balancing their checkbook or opening bills.

Face situation

"Avoidance may temporarily make people feel better but it actually causes that situation to persist in the long run," Stanley said. "One of the things we encourage people to do – once they learn tools for keeping anxiety better managed – is to make sure they face situations that are making them anxious."

Just because a person experiences anxiety does not mean he or she will have high blood pressure but it does increase the risk, Stanley said. Controlling stress through healthy physical and behavioral practices can go long way toward keeping blood pressure spikes under control as well.