You take your blood pressure medications, exercise daily, and follow a heart-healthy diet. But you still struggle to get a handle on your hypertension. Or maybe you’re taking several pills to get your blood pressure into a healthy range, and you’d like to reduce the number of medications you take every day.
Just relax. It isn’t that those concerns aren’t valid. It’s that you may just want to mix in some relaxation techniques to lower blood pressure. Stress is an unseen threat to your health, but it shouldn’t be overlooked, advises Jane Pernotto Ehrman, MEd, lead behavioral therapist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Lifestyle Medicine.
“When we’re stressed, what happens is that our muscles tense up and our breathing gets shallow,” she explains. “Sometimes we actually hold our breath. It’s that fight or flight response. And one of the things that happens is that our blood pressure goes up.”
Boost Your Relaxation Response
While the “fight or flight” response—known clinically as the sympathetic nervous system—can raise your blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension, your body also has a helpful means of countering all that stress. It’s called the parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response. Tapping into that can start with some deep breathing. While you’re focusing on your breathing, relax and just be aware of your present surroundings and how you feel. This relaxed awareness is called mindfulness, but it’s not something you can do in the middle of housework or yardwork or a business meeting. It requires that you set aside a few minutes in a relatively quiet place. It can be outdoors or just a peaceful spot in your home.
“Make the time to sit quietly for five minutes,” Ehrman says. “Then, just breathe. Now, after that third deep breath, you’re going to wonder, ‘How long do I have to do this?’ That’s normal. You can’t turn your mind off. Just turn your mind back to your breathing.”
She adds that every time you have to redirect your thoughts back to your breathing, you’re actually strengthening your ability to de-stress and be mindful. You are making your brain more responsive.
“After you’re able to do five minutes of mindful breathing, then you can work your way up to 15 or 20 minutes a day,” Ehrman says. “Even if you think your mind is all over the place, your blood pressure is coming down. You’re getting more oxygen into your muscles and the rest of your body. And remember, it’s not that you’re doing nothing. You’re doing something, and it’s helping.”
Stray Thoughts Are Okay
Even people who have studied and practiced meditation for years can find their peaceful moments invaded by thoughts about work, family, money or any number of other concerns. Meditation isn’t scored on how much or how little you let outside thoughts enter your consciousness. The key is to gently push those thoughts away so that you can get back to a period of low stress and mindfulness. “There is no ‘getting better at this,'” Ehrman says. “Some days you move through it more easily than others. That’s okay.”
While relaxation techniques to lower blood pressure can make a difference, they may not always be able to replace traditional medicine. You may still need to take medications if you have hypertension.
“But some people can lower their dosages within two weeks after practicing mindfulness,” Ehrman says, adding that healthy behaviors tend to follow. “When you’re calming yourself, you’re not looking for food for comfort. You have more energy for exercise. You sleep better. You feel better.”