Nearly half of all American adults have high blood pressure, according to the CDC. But as the coronavirus pandemic adds stress and complexity to everyday life, doctors are noticing even higher numbers across the board.
Uncontrolled high blood pressure, or hypertension, is a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes. It’s also the most common risk factor for severe complications and death in those with COVID-19.
Over the past couple of months, Dr. Tracy Stevens, cardiologist and medical director of Saint Luke’s Muriel I. Kauffman Women’s Heart Center, has seen a trend of abnormally high blood pressure readings in her patients. Even those without a history of hypertension are reporting higher numbers—particularly higher diastolic readings, or the numbers on bottom.
“Many have made comments that they’re very stressed, they’re not eating healthy or eating out of boredom, and they’re not moving as much,” Dr. Stevens said.
But even with the increased stress and anxiety of a global pandemic, there are some things you can do to help lower your blood pressure.
Know Your Numbers
The first step to managing blood pressure is knowing what your blood pressure is. Although there are exceptions, guidelines recommend striving for a reading of 130/80 or less.
“If you find that your blood pressure is consistently elevated, keep a diary and invest in getting your own home blood pressure cuff,” Stevens said. “Get in the habit of checking your blood pressure at least once a month. If it’s elevated, check it more frequently.”
Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most, if not all, days of the week.
“It doesn’t have to be a dedicated workout,” Dr. Stevens said. “It could be moving for five minutes six times a day. If you’re sitting for long periods of time, get up and walk or go down the stairs. Be creative—you can find heavy things around the house for cautious strength training.
And take time to meditate—put yourself in that happy place to relax. That’s a very important part of an exercise regimen.”
Stay mindful of healthy eating habits. Eat fresh foods and refrain from comfort eating or eating out of boredom. Eliminate any nicotine use and drink alcohol in moderation.
“This pandemic is not a free ride to become unglued—we still have to be owners of our own health, and I think we’ve lost focus of that because we’ve been so distracted,” Dr. Stevens said.
Address Your Stress
Recognize what is making you feel stressed. Take time to address the issue or do something to decompress, like exercise or meditation.
“We can’t avoid stress, but it’s how we manage it,” Dr. Stevens said. “If you’re watching the news 24/7, turn off the TV and watch an update maybe once a day instead.”
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Destressing is often an overlooked, but important step before going to bed. Without enough sleep, the body’s immune system cannot rebuild itself—something that is essential in a pandemic.
“A big thing I’m seeing now is what I call ‘monkey mind sleeping,’” Dr. Stevens said. “People are going to bed stressed, falling asleep dead tired, and then waking up in the middle of the night wide awake with their minds racing with stresses of finances, family schedule, aging loved ones, where this is heading…
But we have got to get a good night’s sleep.”
When to Seek Treatment
If your blood pressure is consistently 140/90 or higher, tell your doctor. If it is markedly elevated and you are having vision changes, headaches, dizziness or stroke-like symptoms call 911.
Pandemic or not, Dr. Stevens emphasizes our health is our own responsibility.
“High blood pressure is still the second-most controllable risk factor that leads to heart attacks and strokes—what we do, or don’t do, every day largely determines our risk,” Dr. Stevens said.
Our health is our most important asset.”