Does relaxation (i.e. stress relief) really lower blood pressure?
This is not a simple yes or no question. The short, quick answer is yes. Take your blood pressure immediately after arriving home from work. Scary, isn’t it? As if the workday wasn’t stressful enough, many of us tend to brood about it on the way home. And commuter traffic doesn’t help much either!
Now relax for 15 minutes and take your blood pressure again. If you’ve genuinely relaxed, your blood pressure is almost guaranteed to be lower, often substantially. (If either figure of your relaxed reading is still above 140/90 you may be hypertensive, although further monitoring is needed.)
The long view…
So relaxation certainly does have the ability to relieve high blood pressure. The longer answer, however, is more complicated. That’s because blood pressure reduction from relaxation alone tends to be short-lived. Depending on many factors, your baseline blood pressure may return within minutes or hours of resuming normal activities. And if that baseline is high you have only gained a temporary reprieve from the dangers of hypertension.
So it might appear that relaxation has a valid, if limited, role in treating high blood pressure. But a new method called slow breathing with music may go a long way towards shifting this balance. So-called relaxation tapes have been around for a long time but these offer only a passive experience. You chill-out to a blissful track, your blood pressure drops and – like the proverbial Chinese food – you’re stressed out and hypertensive again three hours later!
Slow breathing with music, by contrast, combines relaxing music with a clinically proven natural treatment to lower blood pressure, slow breathing. This is not just a passive listening experience. The soundtrack integrates a pleasant-sounding guided breathing track with gentle, soothing music. Listeners simply synchronize their breathing with the track and relax to the music.
Extensive research has revealed that breathing at a rate below 10 breaths per minute and in a specific pattern for 10 to 15 minutes a day lowers blood pressure. What’s even more surprising is that the effects are cumulative and begin to last around the clock after just a few weeks of slow breathing – a result that relaxation does not generally achieve on its own.
It’s a matter of balance
These superior results are because slow breathing does not rely on relaxation alone. Some of its benefit is no doubt due to its relaxing effect on major blood vessels in the chest, relieving the load on the heart. But slow breathing may also affect the body’s sodium uptake, a major factor in hypertension. “Slow, deep breathing does relax and dilate blood vessels temporarily, but that’s not enough to explain a lasting drop in blood pressure,” says Dr. David Anderson, a major slow breathing researcher with the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Anderson believes that what he calls “inhibitory breathing” knocks the blood’s chemical balance off kilter, making it more acidic. This makes the kidneys less efficient at pumping out sodium and in turn raises blood pressure. If slow breathing does in fact relieve high blood pressure by affecting sodium levels it amounts to a powerful diuretic without side effects!
A powerful combination!
But don’t yet underestimate the power of relaxation. Ironically, the clinical trials also show that relaxation is a vital ingredient in the slow breathing formula: the more relaxed you are, the greater the benefits! Conversely, without relaxation the method simply doesn’t work.
That’s why slow breathing with music is proving so effective. Genuine music of the right type provides the essential relaxation and has therapeutic value in its own right. And one further contribution of music is the enjoyment that ensures regular use (because no program will work from the back of a drawer, which is precisely where most “relaxation tapes” end up!).
Neither relaxation nor slow breathing nor music on their own are very effective at producing lasting reductions in high blood pressure. But slow breathing with music – plus relaxation – is a powerful combination indeed.