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3 Expert Takes on Managing Stress and High Blood Pressure/Hypertension

Doctor checking blood pressure

November 29th, 2023

Keeping up with the fast pace of work and personal demands is the leading source of stress for working Canadians. However, as stress increases, so does the likelihood of chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity

Understanding stress and its relationship to high blood pressure can help to improve daily quality of life and overall life expectancy — learn more from two TELUS Health MyCare experts.

High blood pressure: A significant (but controllable) risk factor

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a treatable and controllable chronic condition that affects about one in four Canadians. Stress exacerbates high blood pressure, and if left untreated, high blood pressure can cause heart attacks, stroke, heart failure, dementia, renal failure and blindness.

“When our bodies face a stressful situation, it releases stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones make your heart beat faster and constrict blood vessels, which provides more blood to your muscles so you can react to the stressor,” explains Dr. Alissia Valentinis, Family Physician & TELUS Health Medical Director.

This release of stress hormones also causes your blood pressure to increase temporarily. But what happens when temporary stress becomes chronic stress?

“Chronic stress can lead to chronic high blood pressure, known as hypertension. And hypertension is a significant risk factor for both heart disease and strokes,” says Dr. Valentinis.

The prevalence of high blood pressure also increases with age. In the most recent Canadian Health Measures Survey, 17.7% of Canadians over the age of 12 reported being diagnosed with high blood pressure. Among adults over 65, the prevalence of diagnosed high blood pressure is roughly two-and-a-half times more common (44%).

Getting stress and blood pressure under control is crucial to the health outcomes of Canadians, especially older adults.

Managing stress helps with high blood pressure

Over 4.1 million Canadians reported experiencing high or very high levels of work-related stress (representing 21.2% of all employed people as surveyed through the Government of Canada’s Statistical Framework on Quality of Employment). Some top stressors reported included heavy workloads, work-life balance, emotional load and overtime or long hours.

Work-related stress alone can be a significant factor in a person’s health and wellbeing, with 7.5% of employed people reporting that they took time off from their job or business due to stress or mental health reasons (an average of 2.4 days lost).

From a physiological standpoint, stress is the body's response to perceived challenges or threats. Stress is often illustrated using the example of an imminent, physical threat like a sabre-toothed tiger causing a fight or flight response. However, stress can also be a perceived threat, including trauma, economic strain or a conflict at work, for example.

“Stress, both directly and indirectly, increases blood pressure,” says Dr. Valentinis. “Directly, it releases the stress hormones that raise blood pressure. Indirectly, stress also contributes to other well-known risk factors of high blood pressure such as poor diet and excessive alcohol consumption.”

Signs of stress can encompass cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural symptoms, and observing changes in yourself or a loved one can be an important step to finding relief.

Finding support and healthy ways to cope with stress (also helps high blood pressure)

Prolonged or chronic stress not only keeps the stress hormones surging and the blood pressure rising, but it can also affect how we face or resolve the challenges or threats we perceive.

“How we choose to cope with stress can contribute to increased risk for high blood pressure,” explains Lindsay Killam, MSW, RSW and Clinical Director for Counselling at TELUS Health MyCare. “It is not uncommon for people to turn to a drink or find comfort in junk food. Smoking and vaping are also used for self-soothing and stress management by many people,” she says. “But these quick fixes have long-term consequences.”

A recent article about men’s mental health featuring Dr. Matthew Chow, a Psychiatrist and the Chief Mental Health Officer at TELUS Health, highlights the urgent need for accessible mental health support. Applications like TELUS Health MyCare can help connect people with counsellors to tackle stress and mental health issues as well as other practitioners who can help with lifestyle changes to help manage high blood pressure, like diet or exercise. Working with a healthcare provider is also crucial to addressing concerns about high blood pressure.

Lindsay’s 3 quick tips for stressful moments

  1. Step away and go outside for some fresh air

  2. Do some deep breathing or box breathing to calm your nervous system

  3. Try a grounding exercise like a body scan (focusing on tensing and releasing muscles from the feet up to the head)

The relationship between stress and high blood pressure is a complex but significant factor in health and wellbeing. Recognizing and managing stress offers an opportunity to control a controllable chronic condition like hypertension.

For stress management tips that are personalized to you, book an appointment with a TELUS Health MyCare counsellor*. Appointments are often completely or partially covered by extended benefits. Book before the end of the year or before your benefits renew to ensure you are making the most out of your plan. 

*Users must be 16 years or older to access counselling appointments. Counselling appointments require additional payment of $120 plus applicable taxes. Any payments for appointments must be paid using a valid credit card. An in-app receipt will be provided for you to claim for reimbursement if applicable.