The stress-blood pressure connection: Why you need to relax!

When you live with high blood pressure (hypertension), you often hear people say, watch your stress levels! But what actually happens in the body that pushes up our blood pressure when we’re under stress. Let’s unpack.

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s response to a situation that causes a physical, emotional, or psychological strain. Stress can be both short-term or long-term, and has a variety of symptoms.

Common symptoms of stress

  • Psychological signs will show up as anxiety, difficulty concentrating, worrying, and trouble remembering things.
  • Emotional signs show up as being frequently irritated, moody, frustrated or quick to anger.
  • Physical signs can include high blood pressure, changes in weight, frequently picking up colds or infections, and changes in the menstrual cycle and libido.
  • Behavioral signs include using alcohol or drugs to cope, over-eating, unhealthy eating or smoking too much.
    Impact on the body
  • Stress can affect all the systems of the body including the cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous, respiratory, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems. Chronic stress can wear on the body over time and can have long lasting health effects.

Impact on the body

Stress can affect all the systems of the body including the cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous, respiratory, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems. Chronic stress can wear on the body over time and can have long lasting health effects.

Types of stress

There are different types of stress – some even positive.

  • Acute stress is a momentary or short-term type of stress that we encounter in day-to-day life – like meeting deadlines or braking quickly to avoid an accident – and can be either positive or negative.
  • Chronic stress is a constant stress that we experience over a long period of time; it can be caused by traumatic experiences, childhood trauma, a difficult marriage or a demanding job.
  • Episodic acute stress is when we experience acute stress frequently, such as in the case of people working high-pressured jobs. This can leave us mentally and physically exhausted.
  • Eustress, or good stress, is when we have a surge of adrenaline when doing anything exciting and fun, and it’s a type of stress that can keep your energised.

How stress affects the heart and the cardiovascular system

Under stress, the body releases the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, which prepares the body to respond – a reaction called the “fight or flight response”. This makes your heart beat faster, it increases your blood pressure (as the blood vessels expand to send more blood to the muscles and heart), tightens your muscles, causes you to breathe more rapidly and makes your senses sharper. After an acute stress episode, the body returns to normal.

However, when we’re under episodic acute stress or chronic stress, there is a persistent increase in heart rate, and the stress hormones in the body are constantly elevated, which can put you at risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. It may also lead to inflammation in the coronary arteries – again, putting you at risk of a heart attack.

It’s also important to know that if you’re female, the stress response differs whether you are pre -or postmenopausal. According to the American Psychological Association, premenopausal women handle stress better because estrogen protects them against heart disease. Due to lower levels of estrogen in postmenopausal women, they no longer have this level of protection which increases their risk for the effects of stress on heart disease.

If you’re living with hypertension, and your stress levels are not properly managed, it can lead to complications such as kidney disease, strokes, and heart disease. For those living with heart disease, vigilance is crucial. Severe acute stress – like a robbery or a natural disaster – can act as a trigger for heart attacks, arrhythmias, and, in some cases, sudden death.

Managing stress

If you experience a sudden stressful episode that speeds up your heart rate and makes you breathe faster, try cyclic sighing. Studied by Stanford Medicine, this controlled breathing exercise emphasizes long exhalations, which – very quickly – slows down your heart rate and soothes the body. Instructions:

  1. Take a deep breath through your nose until you’ve filled your lungs.
  2. Then, take a second, deeper sip of air to expand your lungs as much as possible.
  3. Then, very slowly exhale through your mouth until all the air is let out.

After a few deep sighs, you should feel calmer, but continue for 5 minutes to get the full effect.

If you’re under constant stress, you need to give your body physical, emotional and mental rest. Here are some suggestions.

  • Get enough sleep each night.
  • Do yoga, tai chi or stretching to relax your muscles.
  • Have a massage.
  • Take a walk in nature.
  • Go earthing – put your feet on the ground.
  • Limit screen time and exposure to artificial light.
  • Take short breaks throughout the day to focus on your breathing.
  • Read books, listen to music, or watch movies that inspire you.
  • Set aside time every week to pursue sport or a hobby that you enjoy.
  • Set boundaries with those who drain you emotionally.
  • If you’re socially isolated and feeling lonely, join a social, sports or religious club to expand your social circle.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2023). Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. Accessed on 22 April 2024. Available from
  2. Good Thinking. (2023). Types of stress. Good Thinking. Accessed on 25 April 2024. Available from
  3. Leggett, H. (2023). ‘Cyclic sighing’ can help breathe away anxiety. Scope Stanford Medicine. Accessed on 22 April 2024. Available from
  4. LeWine, H. E. (2024). Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health. Accessed on 25 April 2024. Available from,storage%20sites%20in%20the%20body
  5. Ohwovoriole, T. (2022). Can Stress Cause High Blood Pressure?. Very Well Mind. Accessed on 22 April 2024. Available from
  6. Samaan, S.A. (2022). The Link Between Stress and High Blood Pressure. GoodrRX Health. Accessed on 22 April 2024. Available from
  7. Scott, E. (2022). What Is Stress? Your Body’s Response to a Situation That Requires Attention or Action. Very Well Mind. Accessed on 22 April 2024. Available from
  8. Spruill T. M. (2010). Chronic Psychosocial Stress and Hypertension. Current Hypertension Reports, 12(1), 10–16.

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These articles are for information purposes only. It cannot replace the diagnosis of a healthcare provider. Pharma Dynamics gives no warranty as to the accuracy of the information contained in such articles and shall not, under any circumstances, be liable for any consequences which may be suffered as a result of a user’s reliance thereon.

The information the reader is about to be referred to may not comply with the South Africa regulatory requirements. Information relevant to the South African environment is available from the Company and in the Professional Information/Patient Information Leaflet/Instructions for Use approved by the Regulatory Authority.

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