Researchers say hypertensives live in a world of email without smiley faces.

Hypertension and psychological stress are two risk factors for coronary heart disease — the number 1 killer of both men and women in the U.S.

For more than 20 years, James A. McCubbin, Ph.D. Professor of Psychology, Clemson University, South Carolina, has been studying the role of stress in development of hypertension. Stress is a natural fight or flight response to environmental events that may be harmful or threatening. The response speeds the heartbeat and raises blood pressure. McCubbin has found that young adults who have “a much larger blood pressure response during stress,” are at risk for developing sustained high blood pressure – hypertension – later in life.

In fact, he says that exaggerated blood pressure response to stress may be a marker for early progression of the disease, or could directly contribute to hypertension development later in life. “If stress contributes to the disease process, then early intervention to reduce responses to stress could possibly prevent the development of hypertension before irreversible structural damage occurs.”

In their latest research, McCubbin and colleagues have focused on brain function in young people at risk for hypertension. They discovered that people with higher blood pressure have what they call “emotional dampening” — a reduced recognition of emotional cues such as reading facial expressions or text narratives. “It’s like living in a world of email without smiley faces. We put smiley faces in emails to show when we are just kidding. Otherwise some people may misinterpret our humor and get angry,” they said. These misunderstanding can lead to stressful situations.

McCubbin elaborated that “in complex social situations like work settings, we rely on facial and verbal emotional cues to interact with others. Emotional dampening could decrease social support, and increase hostility and high risk behaviors. All of these factors can increase psychosocial stress and further exacerbate high blood pressure and cardiovascular risk.”

A better understanding of brain function in those at risk for hypertension may lead to better therapeutic strategies to “prevent high blood pressure and other diseases linked to our physiological, behavioral and cognitive responses to stress,” he noted.

McCubbin and fellow researchers have found that aerobic fitness and sufficient sleep are two of the most important ways to reduce the harmful effects of stress on blood pressure. Relaxation techniques such as muscle tension control, deep breathing and guided imagery are also effective.

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