The Waterfall of Stress and High Blood Pressure

The holidays are behind us and now it is back to work, back to regular life.  And for a lot of people that means diving back into stress (of course the holidays are not necessarily free from busy schedules or lots of unusual demands, either!).  Stress is, however, a natural part of life, and there are aspects of our stress response that are very healthy, even life-saving in an emergency.  At the same time continued chronic stress can make us really sick.  There is a kind of “waterfall” effect that relates acute stress and physical illness.  Here is one perspective that has proven to be helpful in talking to many different people about stress.


Suppose you are driving to work and someone swerves into your lane.  What happens?  You have a stress reaction—you sweat, your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up, adrenaline and cortisol are released.  Your circulation changes, prioritizing blood supply to your brain, heart, kidneys.  You also become extra vigilant, even hyper-vigilant, which helps you watch to see if someone else is going to swerve into your lane again.  Maybe that crazy driver is still around!  But then, hopefully, once you have reached your destination, your blood pressure returns back to normal and you are able to forget about what happened while driving and turn your attention to your next task.  You are able to let go of the stress and move on.

Now, if the next day another person were to swerve into your lane at the same place, and then the same thing happened again the next day, and the day after that, pretty soon your blood pressure will begin to rise before you even get in your car.  Your body anticipates the stress and prepares for it so that you are physiologically primed to respond.  Pretty soon–especially if this pattern continues in a consistent manner–you may find that even on the days that you don’t get into your car your blood pressure elevates.  Your body has been reset to a different (actually imbalanced) norm.

When that kind of stress pattern continues for months, years, decades, it wears on the body, for those very wise stress responses are not meant to be daily occurrences.  “Emergency response” is not a sustainable way of life.  Elevated blood pressure becomes a continuous state so that even when we are not experiencing an acute stressor, the heart and circulatory system behave as if we were, or maybe said differently, your heart and circulation forget how to react when they are not in an emergency.  Then we get sick—Monday mornings are actually one of the most common times for people to experience a heart attack, and continuously elevated blood pressure increases our risk for stroke. 

Let’s go back to the waterfall: if an acute event with its accompanying appropriate stress responses is at the top of the waterfall (our body should react that way to protect us and keep us from reacting swiftly in order to avoid injury in the moment), and a heart attack is the bottom of the waterfall, then the middle zone—where patterns start to harden and we lose our physiologic flexibility—that is the golden place to make changes.  Modern life is so busy that if we don’t actually consciously work to balance and mediate all of the things that come towards us, we do and will get sick.


There is now a wonderful resource for working with this middle realm which focuses particularly on the changes that come to the heart and circulation: “Lowering High Blood Pressure: The Three-type Holistic Approach,” by Dr. Thomas Breitkreuz and Annette Bopp.  One of the authors is a German anthroposophic physician, who I actually met at a conference last September in Switzerland.  What is beautiful about the book is how it clearly states that medicines are not the real answer (because they are really working too far down the “waterfall,” though it does provide a list of helpful anthroposophic remedies that work further “upstream” than standard blood pressure medicines).  The book is also very forthright about saying that the same medicines, the same lifestyle recommendations will not work for everyone.  It instead offers an extensive quiz that helps each person determine if he or she is a “stress type,” an “abdominal type,” or a “chaos type,” then provides a chapter with helpful suggestions for each constitution.  It’s really wonderful to see anthroposophic understanding put into a reference that you can offer to just about any friend, neighbor, or co-worker, and they will find it accessible and helpful.  And a good reference to explore as we enter into a new year!

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