Hypertension - or elevated blood pressure - is a serious medical condition that significantly increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and blindness. It is one of the leading causes of premature death worldwide. About 1.13 billion people are estimated to have hypertension in the world (Source: WHO).
There’s a reason why your blood pressure is taken every time you visit a doctor’s chamber, regardless of the complaint that brought you there. High blood pressure can be the first indication of a serious underlying condition. It is also popularly known as “the silent killer” as it often carries no symptoms or warning signs.
Causes and Prevention
It is well known that there is no single factor but a combination of many contributing factor that lead to Hypertension. While factors such as genetics and family history may not be under our control, other contributing factors such as obesity, lack of physical exercise, eating high salt content food, smoking, and excessive stress are within our control.
Hence making healthier lifestyle choices—eating healthy (low salt content), exercising regularly, effectively managing stress, and avoiding tobacco and other substances can go a long way in preventing and managing hypertension.
In todays day, however, processed food with high content salt leading to obesity, overwhelming stress, constantly sitting with our systems have become so much a part of the lifestyle that it feels almost impossible to make these changes and stick by it in the long run.
Yet, being a practicing mental health professional, I have seen that just by tweaking some of our unhealthy thoughts surrounding these unhealthy habits it is possible to break and start newer healthier habits. Some of these, I like to call it, psychological hacks, can definitely help you kick start on that healthy journey you’ve been planning:
Making Fitness a Habit
We all know that being physically active is the key to not just keeping a check on high blood pressure but also our health overall. Despite our best intentions, many of us struggle to add exercise to the daily routine. Here’s some tried and tested ways you can take to make exercise less intimidating and more fun.
Start small and build momentum
Exercising regularly for half an hour may seem a little overwhelming in the start. You may begin by setting a smaller goal —starting out with 5 minutes a day is also a good start. You can gradually build up and increase time as you gain self-confidence and momentum.
Choose activities you enjoy
You’re more likely to stick with a workout you find pleasurable. If you find exercises boring but like dancing, opt for Zumba or aerobic instead of yoga. There are tons of options to choose from, choose one that resonates most with you.
Have a workout partner
It can help a great deal to have a workout partner —it can be a friend, a neighbour, a relative, anyone who may like a similar workout activity as you. You both can be a motivator for each other.
Shifting to Eating healthy
The food you eat can have a major impact on your blood pressure, not to mention your heart and brain health. While we all know that we need to avoid processed food, packaged meals, and sugary snacks, and replace it with “real,” natural home made food. Yet it can be challenging to make this shift.
Recognize emotional triggers
It’s important to remember that we don’t always eat simply to satisfy our hunger. We turn to food when we’re stressed, anxious, bored, or lonely, which can knock down any diet. Recognizing your emotional eating triggers and finding healthier ways to deal with stress can make all the difference to achieving a healthy weight.
Eating without guilt is better than following strict diets
Science supports the view that your relationship with food is more important than what you eat. What’s more, emotions have a role to play in digestion. If you feel a negative emotion such as guilt after eating, the hypothalamus sends inhibitory signals to the nervous system, decreasing its efficiency in breaking down calories via increase in insulin and cortisol. In other words, guilt turns into fat. Eminent nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar also holds the opinion that following latest diet fads often lead to binge eating.
Learning to manage stress
Mental stress is inextricably linked to the development and maintenance of high blood pressure. Besides, if stress is not managed well, it often leads to unhealthier habits such as smoking and substance abuse which can be further detrimental for people susceptible to hypertension. Learning to manage stress, however is simple. Here are some basic measures you may take:
Identifying the sources of stress & taking responsibility
Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. While it’s easy to identify major stressors such as changing jobs, moving, financial losses, pinpointing the sources of chronic stress can be more complicated. We often tend to overlook how our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours contribute to your everyday stress levels.
Some of us think of stress as temporary (“I just have a million things going on right now”) even though we can’t remember the last time we took a break. Some of us think of stress as an integral part of our work or home life, almost viewing it as entirely normal. (“Things are always crazy around here”). Some of us blame other people or outside events for our stress.
Until we accept responsibility for the role our thoughts play in creating or maintaining it, the stress level will remain outside our control.
Adopting a relaxation practice.
Practicing a relaxation technique on a regular basis, such as mindfulness meditation, or deep breathing can help put the brakes on stress, slows your breathing and heart rate, and in the long run helping in keeping a check on your blood pressure.
Learning to say “no.”
Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, taking on more than you can handle is a definite recipe for stress.
Express your feelings instead of bottling them up.
If something or someone is bothering you, it is healthier to communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. When we don’t voice our feelings, resentment builds, adding to stress.
Accept the uncontrollable.
Many things in life are beyond our control, particularly the behaviour of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, it is more helpful to focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.
Talk to a friend/ therapist
Nothing eases stress more effectively than chatting face-to-face with a trusted person. Make time to connect with the people closest to you. Sometimes when things are overwhelming talking to a professional and seeking therapy can be smart thing to do.
Getting enough sleep.
Sleep acts as a medicine for stress. If you find it hard to go to to sleep, simple techniques such as Jacobson’s Muscle Relaxation Technique (JPMR) can really help calm those muscles and help you get sleep.
Making lots of different lifestyle changes at the same time can be overwhelming. And when we feel overwhelmed, it’s easy to opt for doing nothing rather than doing something. Once those changes have become habit, you can tackle one or two more, and so on. For example, you may decide to start by giving up smoking—and adopting some relaxation techniques to help with the stress of quitting—then move on to improving your diet. Remember, doing something, no matter how small, is always better than doing nothing. And this applies to every new thing you want to adopt.
Also the more specific your goal, the easier it is to stick to. For example, instead of saying, “I’ll eat healthier and get more exercise,” try “I’ll add a serving of fresh fruits to my breakfast and walk for 30 minutes post dinner.”
It is important to remind yourself that changing your habits and lifestyle tends to happen in stages rather than all at once. So be patient with yourself and focus on your long-term goals, even on days when you feel defeated. Be prepared for relapse and setbacks. Nobody gets it right all the time. We all cheat on our diets every now and then, skip a workout, or backslide into unhealthy habits from time to time. Instead of beating yourself up turn the relapse into a rebound by learning from your mistake. Identify what derailed you from your lifestyle change and make a new plan.
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