From the Heart and Stroke Foundation

Over the last week – or maybe longer, you’ve found that you’ve been tense or anxious. Maybe you’ve got a permanent lump in your throat or had a chronic headache. You’re snapping at colleagues or family members. You’re not sleeping. The symptoms vary, but the source is always the same: stress. It is, however, more than an annoyance. If it lasts longer than a week and becomes unmanageable, it could pump up your blood pressure. High blood pressure is the number one cause of stroke and a major risk factor for heart attack. The good news is that you can do something about your stress – and the sooner the better. Read on.

How stress affects blood pressure

“When you are feeling stressed, your blood pressure goes up and your heart rate quickens. If your stress is persistent, those effects could be damaging,” Heart and Stroke Foundation researcher Dr. Brian Baker says. Being overworked can cause a long-term impact on blood pressure. A 2006 study funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation co-authored by Drs. Sheldon Tobe and Baker, showed that when subjects experienced job strain, their systolic blood pressure (the top number) went up over the course of a year in both men and women. “If you have chronic demands and limited control at your job, over time your blood pressure can be raised by a few points,” says Dr Baker.

The good news

Reducing stress now could lead to a healthy future with a lower risk of heart disease. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, in patients with stable ischemic heart disease, physical activity and stress management training reduced emotional stress and depression and improved some indicators of heart disease.

Ten effective stress busters

  1. Try to pinpoint what’s really causing your stress, Dr. Baker suggests. Keep a diary of when you feel stressed. For instance if you often feel stressed at work, note that down. Then, try to make sure that there is a balance between the effort you put into a task and the reward you receive from it.
  2. Commit to a sound sleep routine. Not getting enough sleep, or poor quality sleep, can make it very difficult to handle everyday stress. Go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday – even on weekends. Avoid alcohol, upsetting TV news, arguments, discussions about financial matters or anything that causes you distress before bed.
  3. Sign up for an assertiveness training classes, available at local community centres and other organizations. "This is very, very useful," Dr. Baker says. "It teaches people to control their emotions and be firm with others, which is important for many people."
  4. Visualize a place or memory that you find relaxing. Is it a beautiful waterfall at your local national park? Your grandmother baking oatmeal cookies? Visualization is an effective means of reducing stress. Use it whenever you need to calm yourself down.
  5. Get physically active on a regular basis. It’s your body’s natural way of getting rid of toxins caused by stress. Make it specific and commit to the time. For example, you may go for a walk around the block every evening after dinner, run on the treadmill three times a week, bike in your local park on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and garden on the weekends. If you’ve been inactive, talk to your physician before starting any exercise program.
  6. Identify places you can go when you need a break from the stress of your busy life. You may find it helpful to visit a near-by park, chapel, temple or library. Or create a room in your home that is designated quiet space where you can do crossword puzzles, listen to soft music, or just sit without interruption.
  7. Get away from it all. Even if it’s just a weekend in the country or a week at home spent watching your favourite movies or sports, you need that downtime to function at work.
  8. Volunteer for a cause you believe in. Helping others can take attention away from yourself and this may reduce your anxieties.
  9. Learn how to breathe deeply and slowly, which can lower stress and blood pressure. Breathing practices such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, or Pilates may help. Try one or more of these offered by a board of education, recreation centre or local community college to find the one that works best for you. Ask your family, friends or colleagues to sign up with you.
  10. Pet a dog or cat. Evidence suggests this can help some people reduce blood pressure and relax.

Read the nutrition column on Healthy eating under stress to learn ways to fight off junk-food temptations. Or try the recipes such as Breakfast cookies (for when you rush out the door) or Curried chicken pita (for a heart-healthy stree-free lunch).

Take the Heart&Stroke Risk Assessment to find out if you’re at higher risk for heart disease and stroke. It’s free and confidential.

Last reviewed March 2008.

Heart and Stroke Foundation


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This article has been independently researched, written and reviewed by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and is based on scientific evidence. The information is for reference and education only. This web article is not intended to be a substitute for a physician’‘s advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should consult your physician for specific information on personal health matters. The Heart and Stroke Foundation assumes no responsibility or liability arising from any error in, or omission of, information or from the use of any information or advice contained within this article.

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