I’ll never forget the time I experienced high blood pressure for the first time. I was in the doctor’s office, which is no joke, although it may sound like one. I thought something might be wrong with me and I was there to find out if I was right or wrong. Of course, one of the first things they do in the doctor’s office is take your blood pressure, which I don’t enjoy. That on top of the fact that I was nervous about what I might find out about my physical condition made my blood pressure soar.
Being that May is National High Blood Pressure Month and National Stroke Awareness Month, I know how important it is to exercise, eat right, and most of all, stay calm and avoid the anxiety I often feel in places like, although not isolated to, the doctor’s office.
The problem is avoiding such situations isn’t always possible, so we’re left with learning how to remain calm no matter what’s going on.
High blood pressure is a common disease in which blood flows through blood vessels (arteries) at higher than normal pressures, says the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NIH). Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, occurs when the force is too high.
According to the NIH website, normal blood pressure for adults is a systolic pressure below 120 mmHg and a diastolic pressure below 80 mmHg. It’s also quite normal for your blood pressure to go up and down depending upon what state you’re in. For instance, if I’m in the foothills of the mountains of Tennessee, particularly at Brookhaven Retreat, a residential treatment facility exclusively for women with mental health and/or substance abuse issues, my blood pressure is probably quite normal. If I’m in New York City witnessing a gang fight, it’s probably sky high. And as soon as I get back to what I consider safety, it returns to normal.
Blood pressure can also fluctuate during sleep when it goes down and during exercise when it goes up, but as we come back to a relaxed state, the blood pressure returns to baseline.
Too often people think they’re too young to develop high blood pressure, but the truth is it can affect anyone at any age. Family history can play a part in a higher risk factor. And the older we get, the more likely it becomes to find ourselves in the doctor’s office discussing why our blood pressure is so much higher than it used to be. The fact is about 65 percent of people in the U.S. age 60 or older have high blood pressure.
One of the effects of high blood pressure is stroke, the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. and a major cause of adult disability, says Million Hearts®, a national initiative with an ambitious goal to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes by 2017. On average, one American dies from stroke every 4 minutes. But in many cases, strokes are preventable and treatable.
What we don’t realize often enough is how much control we actually have over our physical states of being. High blood pressure can be prevented by nurturing not only our bodies, but our sensitivities. We can’t always control our surroundings, but we can control our reactions to them. There are ways to achieve a sense of inner calm that can save you from the panic that ensues in uncomfortable situations, like the doctor’s office and visits to a big city. Mindfulness can be learned and used to create a life worth living.
Here are some tips to stop your blood pressure from rising in difficult situations:
- Follow your breath. Breathing is not something we think about unless we’re panting or we’re doing it on purpose so that it’s audible. But usually, breathing is one of those effortless exercises that require little thought. It’s automatic. To be mindful, following the breath means paying attention to the depth of our inhalations and exhalations. As we approach breathing with mindfulness, we’re automatically blocking out the mental chatter that often runs on and on and can increase anxiety in difficult situations.
- Quiet your thoughts. The continuous mental dialogue that plays in our minds can direct our actions and states of being without us even noticing. The act of noticing is another aspect of mindfulness. We can actually watch our thoughts rather than being a slave to them, and for instance, stop negative talk and quiet our thoughts altogether. You have the power to become the observer and will your mind to be calm. Be aware of repetitive thoughts and ideas that don’t serve you well. You can stop them.
- Recognize your discomfort. Whether it’s stress, anxiety, physical discomfort, fear, or something else entirely, recognize it without judgment. Then, name it according to what it’s making you feel, such as stress, anxiety, fear, etc. If you can identify the discomfort, you can locate it. As discomfort often correlates with an area of the body (neck and shoulders, chest, head, etc.) and lands there to become part of our physical awareness, figure out where the discomfort has landed. Do you feel tension in a particular area of your body? Is there pain in your gut? Are your fists clenched? Is your brow wrinkled from your expression? Recognize it and focus on it until you are able to release the tension. Awareness is mindfulness.
- Let go. If there is something happening that you cannot control, observe it and accept it in order to release it. If you let go of your responsibility or negative feelings, you are less likely to let it affect you negatively. In this way you will also avoid attaching yourself to the outcome of something you can’t control. If you’re not attached, your body won’t react. If you have a hard time detaching, return to your breath. Become mindful about why you are choosing not to let go.