High stress, high blood pressure – understanding the link between hypertension and stress

By Landu Minyuku
Opinion High stress, high blood pressure  understanding the link between hypertension and stress

High-blood pressure, also known as hypertension, kills around 8 million people globally every year. If left untreated, hypertension can lead to severe complications such as heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure, and may resultin death.

It’s called the ‘silent killer’ for a reason as most victims don’t even know they have it. According to Clinical Executive at Profmed, Justine Lacy, “More people suffer with high blood pressure than you realise as one in four adults have the disease – which equates to around one billion people. In South Africa the situation is worse with more than one in three adults living with high blood pressure. Hypertension is responsible for half of all strokes and 2 in every 5 heart attacks in our country.”

Hypertension is one of the top three most prevalent chronic conditions worldwide and Lacy says this is no different among Profmed members. She says Profmed pays more to treat this chronic condition than any other.

One of the core conversations circling the issue has always been the role stress can play in exacerbating the disease. It has been proven that high levels of stress can lead to spikes in blood pressure, but how does this work?

Lacy says the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for the ‘fight or flight’ response during periods of stress and potential danger. When the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, one of the hormones at play is adrenaline which causes blood vessels to constrict and in turn raises the blood pressure. Chronic stress or anxiety can cause this response to become constant or more permanent – leading to an overactive nervous system and subsequently chronic high blood pressure.

As with any disease, one would ideally want to manage the cause where possible and not just the symptoms. Lacy says this is no different when it comes to stress and hypertension. “If the cause of the hypertension is chronic stress it is advisable to not only ensure that you consult a healthcare professional and be placed on medication if appropriate, but that you also manage your stress.”

Not only this, but Lacy says stress-related habits such as eating, smoking, and drinking alcohol also contribute to the problem. If one is experiencing stress and this is not kept in check, it may result in non-compliance with one’s chronic medication simply because of forgetfulness and fatigue. “The effects of stress may also result in one’s inability to exercise and continue to follow a poor diet which escalates the effects of hypertension causing a vicious cycle.”

According to the Ipsos World Mental Health Day Survey, more than 70% of South Africans say stress has impacted their life multiple times in the space of a year to the point where they ‘could not cope with things’. It also revealed that 50% of South Africans said they have felt stressed to the point where they couldn’t go to work.

In the latest Profmed Stress Index, a resounding 40% of respondents identified work-life balance as the primary stressor in their lives, surpassing toxic work environments and workload pressures.

“Work-life balance can never be overstated enough,” says Lacy. “Sufficient time away from work for self-care which includes exercise, relaxation, meditation, hobbies and planning healthy meals, will have a positive effect on blood pressure control, and circumvent the development of complications of chronic disease such as heart failure, heart attack and kidney disease.”

She says lifestyle changes can help prevent and lower high blood pressure. Exercise, mindfulness, and adequate sleep amongst many others, contribute positively to reducing and managing stress and in turn decrease blood pressure. However, she warns that any modification one plans to do, needs to become permanent rather than erratic as the positive effects is seen with perseverance over time.

“These choices not only benefit our cardiovascular health but also contribute to overall wellbeing and quality of life. Ultimately, recognising the influence of stress on hypertension serves as a catalyst for positive change, empowering us to take control of our health and forge a path towards a healthier, more balanced lifestyle,” Lacy concludes.