We don’t all stress out about the same things, but we all stress out about some things, and when we do, our blood pressure often suffers.
For some people, the effect is swift and direct. We get anxious, angry, frustrated or frightened, and our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear and pours adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol and other fight-or-flight hormones into our bloodstream. Our hearts beat faster, our arteries constrict or widen depending on where blood needs to go, and our kidneys retain fluids and salt to increase blood volume.
All good when we need to fight or run to defend ourselves or push a friend out of the path of an oncoming car. We can ease up afterward, go “Whew!” and let our parasympathetic nervous system take over to slow the heartbeat, relax the blood vessels, lower blood pressure and calm the body down.
But it’s not good when the alarm gets tripped chronically for a long list of reasons: money’s tight, the mortgage is due, you’re angry with your partner, you’re worried about your kids, you hate your job but you’re terrified of losing it. The frequent (or, for some of us, constant) bombardment of stress hormones and other emergency-strength biochemicals can inflame or damage the arteries and cause smaller blood vessels to burst, or to thicken and stiffen to withstand the assault. Your heart muscle can suffer from overexertion. Your whole cardiovascular system is working too hard and eventually your body may simply crank up your resting heart rate and blood pressure in response.
Here are healthy ways to hit the reset button, and dial down your blood pressure:
Learn (your own) body language. If you’re the type who doesn’t realize you’re tense until the pencil snaps in your hand, pay more attention, says Michael McKee, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Psychology and author of Stress and Your Body, And What to Do About It. Practice stopping each time you look at your watch or hang up the phone or check your e-mail, and see how your body is doing. Is your neck tight? Is your stomach churning? Are you clenching your fists? These are all signs that something is making you and your body unhappy. You can do wonders for your body, your blood pressure included, simply by telling yourself, “I can leave my body out of this.”
Breathe! When we feel stressed or angry, we tend to hold our breath, which increases carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Studies at the National Institute on Aging have found that the extra carbon dioxide is associated with a higher risk of sodium-sensitive hypertension. Your remedy: the simple act of remembering to breathe — slowly, deeply, from the belly.
Slow, deep breathing has a bunch of positive biological effects. “It seems to work like exercise for the heart,” says Dr. McKee. That’s because it restores something called optimal heart-rate variability, or the difference between how fast your heart beats when you inhale and exhale. You want it to beat just a little faster when you inhale, and breathing slowly from the belly gets you there. “It keeps the heart strong, and it’s associated with feeling calm and good,” says Dr. McKee.
Here’s how to do it: Put a hand on your belly. If it doesn’t move out and in when you breathe, you’re not belly breathing. Use a clock with a minute hand to time your breaths. Aim for six breaths a minute, 10 seconds a breath. Inhale slowly for three or four seconds (your belly should expand, or push out). Exhale (your belly should fall, or push in) more slowly for six or seven seconds. Pause and repeat. Keep it up until you feel yourself relax.
· Enhance the effect: Clear your mind of worried thoughts and deepen your relaxation by repeating a soothing word to yourself with each exhale (such as one, peace, love, life, healthy) or imagining yourself in a tranquil setting (your cozy bed, a sun-drenched beach). Conjure a beautiful image to focus on, or see the smiling face of someone you love. Tell yourself, “My muscles are relaxing and my heart is slowing.” Or visualize your blood vessels widening, your blood flowing well and your blood pressure going down.
· Perfect your technique: Do a few minutes of belly breathing as many times during the day as you like. Try to fit in a 15-minute session early and late each day to build your skills. Clearing your mind isn’t easy at first. If you’re new at it, just try to notice when you get sucked back into your thoughts, tell yourself, “I can think about that later,” let the thought float off, and return to your focus. Don’t be discouraged if you have to do this a lot at first, says Dr. McKee. You’ll improve with time. Observing our thoughts also helps us see how unnecessarily stressful (“This is a disaster!”) many thoughts are, which can help blunt their effect.
· Look on the bright side. A study in Circulation found that optimistic women had lower rates of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes and death than pessimistic women. Researchers aren’t sure whether a positive outlook motivates us to take better care of ourselves or has direct health benefits. Either way, being upbeat has upsides for your health. If you tend to see the glass as half-empty, try this: Once a week for a month or more, list three things you’re grateful for and spend time contemplating what makes them possible, suggests Thomas Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Thankful for your health? Think about what keeps you healthy. Thankful for a strong relationship? Think about how you manage that. Evidence suggests that this simple act to cultivate gratitude can be a powerful antidote for anxiety and depression.
· Turn to Mother Nature. Something got your blood boiling? Go for a drive in the country. Take a walk in the park. Sit on your back porch and gaze at the grass, trees and sky. Feel better? Of course you do. It’s called the biophilia hypothesis, and it holds that, having evolved in nature, we humans are programmed to relax in soothing, savannah-like settings. Our sympathetic nervous system powers down, our parasympathetic nervous system powers up, our heart rate slows, our muscles relax, our blood vessels dilate, and our blood pressure falls.
· Laugh — a lot! Researchers at the University of Maryland found in a 2005 study that when people watched a movie clip that made them laugh, their blood vessels dilated. When they watched one that made them anxious, their blood vessels tightened up. The researchers weren’t sure why, but the change in blood flow was marked enough for them to conclude that 15 minutes of laughter a day is “probably good for the vascular system.” Now, researchers at California’s Loma Linda University report that people with type 2 diabetes who watched something that made them laugh for 30 minutes a day were much healthier a year later than those who didn’t.