Healthbeat

Lower stress, lower your blood pressure

You can't see your blood pressure or feel it, so you may wonder why this simple reading is so important. The answer is that when blood pressure is high, your heart is working overtime to pump blood through your body. This extra work can result in a weaker heart muscle and potential organ damage down the road. Your arteries also suffer when your blood pressure is high. The relentless pounding of the blood against the arterial walls causes them to become hard and narrow, potentially setting you up for stroke, kidney failure, and cardiovascular disease.

A healthy lifestyle — not smoking, losing excess weight, eating nutritious foods, and exercising regularly — is the cornerstone for preventing and treating hypertension.

Another important lifestyle change that can help lower blood pressure is managing stress. Too good to be true? No. Your blood pressure comes down when you practice the relaxation response — even when simply breathing deeply for several minutes to calm your body. Regular practice of the relaxation response could help you reap more lasting benefits.

There are many ways to elicit the relaxation response. Techniques include breath focus; body scan; guided imagery; mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong; and even repetitive prayer. The trick is to find a method you are comfortable with and to make your stress reduction practice part of your routine.

For some people, medication — in addition to lifestyle changes — is necessary to get blood pressure to a healthy level. Even so, stress management can be a helpful addition. In fact, a randomized, controlled trial of older adults showed that an eight-week program of relaxation response plus other stress management techniques lessened the amount of medication some of the participants needed to control their blood pressure.

To learn more about how stress affects your health and wellbeing, and for practical and effective ways to manage the stress in your life, buy Stress Management: Approaches to preventing and reducing stress, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.