All of us feel anxious at times—maybe you’re nervous about a presentation or you’re stressed about arriving somewhere on time. You may joke that you can feel your blood pressure rising. But if you experience anxiety on a regular basis, should you be worried about it also causing high blood pressure?
Anxiety and blood pressure: What’s the link?
Anxiety is the body’s physical response to stress. Heavy breathing, feeling “butterflies” in your stomach, or getting a sudden burst of energy are all physical manifestations of anxiety. Feeling anxious at times is completely normal and can even be helpful in certain situations. We all have a fight or flight response, like if you saw a bear in the woods your body would generate the epinephrine needed to run quickly. When you experience these short episodes of anxiety, increased heart rate and a temporary blood pressure spike is both likely and helpful.
“Blood pressure varies moment to moment in all people,” says Evan Jacobs, MD, a primary care physician at Conviva Care Center in Parkland, Florida. “Stressors such as pain, discomfort, or anxiety will elevate blood pressure temporarily and this is a normal reaction.”
But long-term high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, isn’t just the temporary result of a stressful situation—it’s when blood pressure is consistently too high, according to the American Heart Association. Hypertension is a common health condition, nearly half of American adults have it. When patients have uncontrolled elevated blood pressure, patients feel anxious. When the blood pressure is controlled with medication, patients often feel calmer and less jittery.
So, can anxiety cause high blood pressure? It’s still unclear to researchers whether experiencing frequent episodes of anxiety or having an anxiety disorder directly increases the risk of having hypertension. They do know that chronic anxiety and anxiety disorders—like general anxiety or social anxiety—are associated with cardiovascular disease and have been linked to adverse cardiovascular outcomes, including hypertension. The “why” isn’t clear. Maybe anxious people use unhealthy behaviors like smoking, excessive alcohol use, or overeating as coping mechanisms. Each of these activities are risk factors for high blood pressure.
Additionally, mental health and physical health are linked, says Georgia Gaveras, DO, the chief psychiatrist at Talkiatry. “Anxiety can be related to increased blood pressure, and to protect one, we must protect the other.”
What is white coat syndrome?
One interesting phenomenon related to anxiety and hypertension is white coat syndrome or white coat hypertension. This occurs in 15% to 30% of patients who have a rise in their blood pressure due to nerves or anxiety when they are in a clinical setting, such as a doctor’s or dentist’s office (hence the “white coat” name). It’s a concern for patients because they may be prescribed unnecessary medication that can have detrimental side effects. What makes it even trickier is that white coat syndrome can sometimes be an early warning sign for actual hypertension.
Luckily, it’s unlikely that a doctor will prescribe medication or treatment based on one high blood pressure reading. If you or your doctor believe you may be experiencing white coat syndrome, it’s likely you’ll be asked to monitor your blood pressure readings at home or wear an ambulatory blood pressure monitor for a few days to get a more accurate depiction of your blood pressure. Blood pressure goals are under 135/85.
Side effects of medication
Treating anxiety and/or high blood pressure is important to your health, but you may be wondering if medication could make either condition worse. The answer? It depends.
“Most of the typical medications used to treat anxiety actually tend to lower blood pressure by blunting the stress response to anxiety,” Dr. Jacobs says.
In fact, beta blockers, a commonly prescribed medication for hypertension and heart disease, are also prescribed as an off-label drug for anxiety. On the flip side, if you’re prescribed a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRIs), an antidepressant, there’s a chance that it can raise blood pressure. If that’s a concern, be sure to let your healthcare providers know so you can discuss if another medication might be better suited or you can work out a plan to mitigate any possible side effects.
If you are being treated for both an anxiety disorder and hypertension, it’s important to disclose all medications you’re taking with all your doctors and follow medical advice so they can design a treatment plan that works to improve both conditions concurrently.
How to manage symptoms
If you’re experiencing anxiety and/or high blood pressure readings, incorporate these lifestyle changes and take prescribed medication:
1. Exercise daily
Keeping physically active helps reduce anxiety and improves heart health. Even a 10-minute walk may be just as good for your mental health and wellness as a longer workout. Exercise releases feel-good hormones, called endorphins, that can have lasting effects. Making exercise a regular habit has long-term effects, too, such as training the brain to help cope with stress even better.
Exercising more doesn’t mean you have to go from being a couch potato to a marathon runner overnight. The best exercise for you is the one that you do: hiking, dancing, going on long walks while listening to podcasts, or weightlifting. Check with your doctor to confirm that it is safe to start a new routine.
2. Reduce alcohol
While unwinding with a glass of wine or a bottle of beer can feel good, it’s likely doing more harm to your anxiety and high blood pressure. Drinking temporarily increases your blood pressure, which alleviates within a few hours. But if you’re drinking alcohol over several days, it can lead to a sustained increase in blood pressure—one that doesn’t decrease after a few drinks and can lead to an increased risk of hypertension.
If you find yourself drinking a few days a week, you may also be drinking more calories than you’d like or making food choices you wouldn’t otherwise make. These decisions can lead to weight gain and thereby increases your risk of high blood pressure.
And when it comes to anxiety and stress levels, alcohol often exacerbates it. In fact, there’s even a word for it—“hangxiety.” While you may feel less stressed while drinking, as the alcohol wears off, quite often you’ll feel worse than when you began drinking. It’s estimated that 20% of people with social anxiety disorder also experience from some type of alcohol dependence.
If you’re trying to reduce anxiety or your blood pressure, drinking alcohol less frequently can help.
If you’re looking for something that you can do anywhere, at any time, to reduce high blood pressure and ease anxiety, meditation is it. Studies have found that meditating can produce “small yet meaningful” reductions in blood pressure, either on its own or with medication.
Meditation techniques like slowing down your breath, concentrating on your breathing, and deep breathing also help with anxiety. You can incorporate these helpful techniques throughout your day to ground yourself and reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety. There are many apps that offer guided meditations to help incorporate the practice into your life.
4. Get more (and better) sleep
If you’re frequently cutting your sleeping hours short, you may be paying for it. Researchers know that skimping on sleep can lead to higher blood pressure. But it turns out that it’s not just how much time you spend in bed that matters, but also the quality of rest.
A recent study found that people who had lower sleep efficiency—the amount of time in bed that’s spent sleeping soundly—showed an increase in blood pressure both that night and the next day.
Getting enough high-quality sleep can be difficult if you have anxiety, but not sleeping enough can worsen the condition, as it can make you more irritable and increase anxious responses. So what’s an anxious person to do?
Adding meditation to your nighttime routine can help. Avoiding coffee and alcohol in the afternoons and evenings can also make it easier to fall asleep. Keeping your phone out of bed and picking up a book instead can help get your brain into sleep mode.