At one point or another, you’ve probably heard or used the phrase “blood-boiling” to describe feelings of anger or frustration. But you might not realize just how strong the relationship between mind and body—or, in this case, anger and blood pressure—can actually be.
“Your mind and body are heavily connected to one another,” explains Dr. Harpreet Nagra, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and VP of behavioral science at One Drop. “Oftentimes, your body alerts you to something going on emotionally that doesn’t feel good by providing some sort of psychosomatic symptom, and high blood pressure may be a sort of culmination of chronic stress that you’re dealing with.”
Reminder: High blood pressure (a.k.a. hypertension) is when the force of circulating blood against your artery walls is too intense, meaning your heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout your body. Blood pressure readings are given in two numbers: The top number is your systolic blood pressure (the pressure exerted against artery walls with each heartbeat), and the bottom number is your diastolic blood pressure (the force against artery walls between heartbeats). For most people, an optimal blood pressure reading is <120/<80.
Plenty of factors can influence your risk of hypertension, but what about anger and blood pressure?
How Anger and Blood Pressure Are Connected
When blood pressure rises as a result of anger or stress, that’s a sign of your body’s fight-or-flight response at work, says Tanya J. Peterson, a nationally certified counselor (NCC) and diplomat of the American Institute of Stress (DAIS).
“Anger is a very strong emotion that instantly causes our whole system to react,” including, in many cases, a rise in blood pressure, she explains. “When we experience anger, the amygdala in the brain—our emotional center— immediately reacts and signals another part of the brain, the hypothalamus, to produce corticotropin-releasing hormones (CRH, a hormone that drives your body’s stress response) and send it to the pituitary gland, which is also in the brain.”
From there, the pituitary gland is “armed and alarmed,” continues Peterson, so it sends another hormone—adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)— to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys, causing them to produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. “This all happens in an instant the moment we experience something that makes us feel angry,” she explains.
Once these hormones are produced, they can cause both your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, says Peterson. “Elevated blood pressure, along with a drop in oxygen supply courtesy of rapid, shallow breathing during stressful experiences, tells the brain that there’s a problem to face, which perpetuates the fight-or-flight reaction and can keep it going indefinitely and chronically if left unchecked.”
So, when anger spikes your blood pressure in the short term, that’s a relatively normal way for your body to respond to negative emotions. But if that mind-body reaction continues at a chronic pace, and you don’t develop any coping strategies to handle those emotions, long-term and unmanaged high blood pressure may increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
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Strategies for Managing Anger and Blood Pressure
Even though chronic anger and stress can lead to high blood pressure and other heart health issues, that doesn’t mean the solution is to bottle up your anger or ignore those feelings when they try to bubble up to the surface.
Instead, Dr. Nagra encourages you to picture your emotions on a bell curve. “At the top of the bell curve, you’re blowing up with anger about something,” she explains. “Rather than letting yourself get to that point, where you have to de-escalate the situation, first identify what your baseline emotions look like. How do you know when you’re typically okay?” For instance, maybe it’s when you’re able to take deep breaths, or when you have some space away from other people.
Whatever your baseline is, the goal is to recognize not just the starting point for your emotions, but also all of the triggers that may exist along the slope of the bell curve that lead up to the point of full-on anger. “Those triggers might be everyday stressors, like driving to work and getting caught in traffic, or maybe your boss made a negative comment about you, or your paycheck wasn’t what you wanted it to be,” explains Dr. Nagra. “All of these things can add up over time. The idea here is to become more aware of what each trigger point is and how you’re talking to yourself along the way with each trigger, so you can identify what’s working and what’s not working well for you over time.”
In other words, it’s not realistic to completely suppress anger and other negative emotions for the sake of lowering your blood pressure. “These emotions can actually be useful indicators that something is wrong,” notes Dr. Nagra. “The key is to be able to identify how to express your emotions, regardless of what’s happening, and to have a stress management system for yourself, including a list of coping strategies.”
Need some inspiration for those strategies? Below are some healthy habits that can benefit both your blood pressure and your emotional well-being:
- Move every day. “Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall health and blood pressure,” explains One Drop coach, Sandra, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES). Plus, while working out initially spikes your body’s stress response, it can help reduce stress hormone levels after bouts of exercise, especially when done consistently and long-term. Even if you can’t find time for something like a bike ride or dance class, consider simply going for a walk at the end of each day to reset and relax. “Whatever you do,” says Sandra, “make sure it’s fun.”
- Eat well. “Eating well can help you manage your blood pressure and stabilize your mood,” says Sandra. Do your best to stick to unprocessed foods that combine fresh produce with complex carbohydrates from whole foods (think: rolled oats, beans, quinoa)—which can increase the amount of the feel-good chemical serotonin in your brain—and lean protein (think: fish, chicken, tofu, eggs, unsweetened yogurt), which has been linked to higher levels of dopamine (another brain chemical that influences mood and motivation).
- Accept your needs. In many ways, coping with emotions is about acceptance, not avoidance, of those emotions. It’s about recognizing what your triggers are along that anger bell curve. What situations or circumstances make you feel physically and mentally agitated? What does that agitation actually feel like as you’re experiencing it? Blood-boiling? Stomach-churning? Once you can identify that cause-and-effect relationship, then you can figure out what brings you back to baseline.
- Meditate. Research shows that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)—which involves meditation, body awareness, and gentle yoga—can have a significant effect on lowering blood pressure levels, explains One Drop coach, Melinda Washington, RDN, CDCES. “The foundation of this practice is to use breathing techniques to calm down the nervous system and slow your heart rate,” she says. Whether you like to sit in silence and practice slow, deep breathing, or you prefer to step outside for a mindful walk through nature, mindfulness and meditation can help keep anger in check and blood pressure down by interrupting the chain reaction of stress hormones released as a result of your fight-or-flight response, explains Peterson. “When you make these calming strategies a habit, you teach your brain and body to respond calmly and thoughtfully to upsetting situations rather than instantly reacting in anger,” she explains. “This helps maintain healthy blood pressure over time.”
- Consider therapy. Peterson reminds us that you don’t have to have a diagnosable mental health condition in order to see a therapist. “Working with a therapist can go a long way toward reducing anger and lowering your blood pressure,” says Peterson. “Feelings of anger are very common reasons why people seek therapy.” Use Psychology Today or mentalhealth.gov to search for local mental health resources by state or zip code. You can also explore mental health directories such as goodtherapy.org to search for sliding-scale therapists, who will adjust their hourly fees per person to make their services more affordable for everyone.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Alexa Stelzer, RDN, CDCES, clinical health coach at One Drop, and Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop.