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Stress & high blood pressure: The connection

Do you have high blood pressure? Is there a connection between stress and 'The Silent Killer' high blood pressure?   2014-11-04

UK government statistics show that the total number of cases of work-related stress in the years 2011/12 was 428,000 from a total of 1,073,000 work related illnesses. This means that 40% of all work related illnesses were connected to stress.

Work-related stress develops when we become unable to cope with the demands being placed on us. Stress can affect anyone at any level and often it is widespread and not confined to particular sectors, jobs or industries.

Causes of work stress

The causes of work-related stress are many and varied:

  • Complex and changing roles with no support
  • Inadequate training
  • Bullying
  • Working in a hostile environment
  • Unreasonable demands
  • Unmanageable deadlines

Repetitious tasks requiring minimal challenges

  • Unpleasant or belittling jobs
  • Breakdown in communication with mangers or colleagues
  • No acknowledgement of contribution
  • Social problems in the workplace

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Work stress & high blood pressure

One of the symptoms of work-related stress is a rise in blood pressure. Our body produces a surge of hormones when we are in a stressful situation. These hormones temporarily raise the blood pressure by causing the heart to beat faster and blood vessels to narrow. If these short-term stress-related spikes in the blood pressure continue the risk increases of developing long-term high blood pressure, medically termed hypertension and the increase risk of a heart attack or stroke.

What is blood pressure?

Blood Pressure is measured in millimeters of mercy (mmHg) and is recorded as two numbers- for example 140/90mmHg.

  • The higher number is the pressure of the blood when the heart beats to pump blood out and push it around the body
  • The lower number is the pressure of the blood when the heart rests in between beats and reflects how strongly your arteries are resisting blood flow.
  • Blood Pressure measurements fall into one of three groups:
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension) is when the top number is cited as being 90 or less and the lower number is 60 or less – Suffering with low blood pressure is not necessarily a cause for concern but may cause dizziness or feeling faint, any such symptoms should be discussed with your GP
  • Normal blood pressure is when the reading between 90/60 and 120/80
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) is when top number is 140 or more and the lower number is 90 or more. This is potentially more  concerning and is a pre-disposing factor in relation to   stroke and heart disease.

Who is at risk for high blood pressure?

There is no clear cause of high blood pressure but you are more at risk if you:

1.   Suffer from work related stress

2.   Are aged over 65

3.   Have a relative with high blood pressure

4.   Are of African or Caribbean descent

5.   Eat too much salt- an adult should eat no more than 6g of salt a day. Salt works on the kidneys to make the body hold on to more water and this results in a higher blood pressure due to the extra fluid in the blood vessels.

6.   Insufficient consumption of fruit and vegetables - Fruit and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals and fibre to keep your body in good condition. They also contain potassium, which helps to balance out the negative effects of salt. This has a direct effect on your blood pressure, helping to lower it.

7.   Don’t do enough exercise - Regular physical activity makes your heart stronger. A stronger heart can pump more blood with less effort. If your heart can work less to pump, the force on your arteries decreases, lowering your blood pressure.

8.   Drink too much alcohol - too much alcohol will raise your blood pressure over time. Alcohol also contains a lot of calories which will make you gain weight. This will also increase your blood pressure.

9.   Are overweight - losing weight should help to reduce blood pressure and lower your risk of other health problems, such as diabetes. Keeping to a healthy weight is crucial to ensure  your heart and blood vessels are healthy.

10.  Smoking - nicotine present in tobacco causes increased blood pressure and heart rate.

It is estimated that over 8 million people in the UK are unaware that they have high blood pressure. Known as the "silent killer", high blood pressure rarely has obvious symptoms and often the only way of knowing there is a problem is when your blood pressure is measured.

In an effort to raise awareness of the dangers of high blood pressure, the charity Blood Pressure UK is sponsoring Know your numbers! Awareness Week between 15 to 21 September. The aim of Know your Numbers! Week is to provide free blood pressure tests and information. The charity is dedicated to lowering the nation's blood pressure and their vision is that everyone will know their blood pressure number to takes steps to remain healthy both now and in the future.

Work-related suicides

An unfortunate and extreme result of work related stress is suicide. In a 2003 survey by the Samaritans, it was found that "People's jobs are the single biggest cause of stress… with over a third (36 per cent) of Briton's citing it as one of their biggest stressors". The survey revealed that:

  • 23 per cent of people working full time get stressed every day compared to just 16 per cent of those who aren't working.
  • 45 per cent of those who have felt stressed in Britain have been depressed as a consequence.

According to the Samaritans, high stress levels “together with easy access to means, are important factors which put people in certain occupations at greater risk of dying by suicide”. A simple glance at ‘Hazards Magazine’ will bring home the tragedy of work related stress with stories of people who were driven to suicide by pressure at work. In 2012 there were 5981 suicide deaths in the UK.

The tragedy of suicide is global as evidenced by the publicised deaths of Mick Jagger’s girlfriend L’Wren Scott and more recently, Robin Williams. So much so that September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day the aim of which is to prevent suicide and save lives.

It is important to keep in mind that work is a means to an end and not an end in itself. If we feel that the stress is engulfing us and taking over our lives, it is crucial that we take steps NOW to effectively deal with the stress.

Don't ignore your stress, deal with it

  • Avoid confrontation if possible, our working environment should be conducive to all and heated exchanges will adversely affect all team members. Differences should be discussed with either your HR department or line manager.
  • Be realistic about the standards you set yourself;
  • Prioritise your work load
  • Learn to accept the things you cannot change and deal with them in a pragmatic fashion
  • Be assertive (never aggressive) and become pro-active in making positive changes if deemed necessary in your work environment
  • Ensure that a portion of the day involves enjoyable social activities
  • Be flexible and be willing to compromise;
  • Report situations that present hazards to the appropriate departments to ensure a prompt solution;
  • Allow sufficient time for travelling to work;

Extreme stress at work is detrimental to us both physically and emotionally. We advise you to be aware of  symptoms of stress and take positive action, such as seeking help if you feel that you are unable to cope.