Hypertension, the medical term for high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for strokes and heart disease. Its successful treatment has demonstrable health benefits and is a multi billion-dollar source of revenue for the drug industry. Research dollars, predictably, go to projects that focus on pharmaceutical approaches.
Blood pressure is a measurement of the pressure in the arteries, the vessels that conduct blood from the heart to the other organs. “The cause of elevated arterial pressure is unknown in most cases,” a widely respected medical textbook states. It is a case of the lay public being ahead of the professionals, since many people will remark when they are upset that “I’m sure my blood pressure is sky-high.” Physiologically, they are entirely correct.
The narrower the arteries, the greater the resistance to blood flow. Emotional upset triggers the release of adrenaline and activates the sympathetic nerves, the flight-or-fight component of our nervous system. Muscles throughout the body tighten, including in the walls of arteries. Resistance to flow increases, as does the blood pressure.
Voluminous research documents the hypertensive effect of stressful situations, including job stress. In British studies, individuals who perceived themselves to be under high job strain were shown to have higher blood pressure on work days than on non-work days. In another study, blood pressure was elevated in response to tasks that were imposed on the subjects and which, therefore, they could not control. By contrast, self-chosen, controllable tasks had no such effect.
Such findings are consistent with what is known about stress: Stress is characterized by a loss of control, lack of information, uncertainty and conflict, all features of contemporary social life. Urbanization increases the risk for hypertension.
A common, but hidden, source of stress are emotions a person may not even be aware of — or, if aware, unable to express effectively. The chief of these is anger. Both the unrestrained expression of anger and its suppression are significant contributors to high blood pressure and heart disease. The sympathetic nerves triggered in rage reactions narrow the blood vessels, inducing hypertension and reducing oxygen supply to the heart. The stress hormones secreted during rage states raise cholesterol levels and heighten the risk of blockages in the arteries.
“It was blind rage, I was sure, that had gotten me into this fix with my heart,” U.S. journalist Lance Morrow wrote in Heart, his memoir of cardiac disease.
The other side of the coin is that people who repress their anger also increase the resistance in their arteries and thus their risk of hypertension.
With high blood pressure, as with many other phenomena, our language tells us more than sometimes we are prepared to understand. Is it purely accidental that the word “pressure” can refer to a feeling and also to a hydrodynamic state of our blood vessels? Or that “tension” describes both what we experience emotionally and a physical state in our cardiovascular system?
About two months ago, I had a routine check and learned, to my surprise, that my blood pressure — usually in the normal range — was markedly elevated. The first question my family physician, a doctor aware of psycho-emotional factors in health and illness, asked me was whether I was stressed. “No, of course not,” I replied automatically. My response was typical. Most of us live our lives as if nature had intended us to spend our days running on treadmills, without a thought for our emotional and spiritual rest and well-being. But further reflection led me to make changes. Within a few weeks, the blood pressure was back to normal.
A recent Canadian medical journal article on the treatment of high blood pressure advises physicians to take into account such lifestyle factors as excessive alcohol intake, obesity, lack of exercise, too much dietary salt and excessive licorice intake. Sensible advice, but notable in its omission of social and emotional stress. Healthy blood pressure control requires a recognition of the stresses acting on us, a clear sense of when we are upset and an effective way of expressing and resolving anger.