Contact: James McCubbin, Ph.D.
For Release: Immediately
High blood pressure is no friend to the 1.13 billion adults in the world– including one out of every three Americans– who have it. It’s a major cause of stroke and a key risk factor for heart disease.
The popular stereotype of someone with hypertension is an excitable, emotional person who needs to calm down. But there’s new evidence that suggests the opposite. People with elevated blood pressure actually have a dampened psychological response to emotionally charged scenarios. They’re rather tone-deaf to scenes that evoke significantly greater emotion in adults with normal blood pressure.
They’re also bigger risk-takers with their health; perhaps, thanks to their tamped-down emotional responses, they simply don’t feel scared to down that Big Mac, pack on the extra 25 pounds or pursue life without exercise.
These possibilities are illuminated in a unique new study exploring the link between emotional response, high blood pressure and risk-taking. Published online ahead of print, it will appear in a coming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
Study participants, 92 healthy adults, all had their resting blood pressure taken several times. They also took a test that measures how well they recognized emotions in facial expressions and written descriptions of emotional scenarios. The expressions and written material were designed to evoke both positive and negative emotions, explains study author James McCubbin, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Public Health Sciences at Clemson University. Participants then completed a survey inquiring about their practice of risky health behaviors, including several that can affect the risk for hypertension—physical activity, alcohol, drug and tobacco use—plus other general practices such as safe sex and the use of seat belts.
The results were clear-cut: “The higher their blood pressure, the more risk they’re likely to engage in,” says McCubbin.” Poorer emotional recognition and responsiveness also correlated with higher blood pressure, but it did not account for the link between health risk-taking and higher blood pressure. So, what causes what? It’s impossible to say until further research helps to disentangle cause and effect, McCubbin explains.
But it is easy to see how someone who doesn’t accurately pick up emotional cues put out by an angry boss could stumble into work problems, which in turn raises blood pressure. Or, not reading friends’ emotions accurately could prompt them to feel a lack of empathy and result in these friends providing less support, which also can nudge blood pressure up. And dampened emotional cues also could contribute to a devil-may-care approach to dangerous health practices that promote high blood pressure.
Also, there may be an important brain involvement, which is not well understood yet. When the emotional centers of the brain are stimulated, for example with a small electric current, blood pressure rises. So, both emotional responsiveness and blood pressure may be influenced by some of the same brain areas.
No matter the cause or causes, people with mild hypertension or high blood pressure should use the study findings to their benefit, advises McCubbin. “You may be able to compensate for emotional dampening in several ways,” he points out. “For example, be aware that your sensitivity to emotional cues may be dampened, and that you may underestimate the negative consequences of risk-taking. Focus on and identify emotional cues in the environment. Seek clarification in communication with others, and work to better understand your own feelings.”
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”