Published November 11, 2011
People with high blood pressure have more trouble than others in picking up emotional cues, a new study finds.
Researchers reported that people with high blood pressure were less reactive when shown photographs and text passages meant to trigger emotions including fear, anger and happiness.
This weakened response could be called "emotional dampening," said James McCubbin, a psychology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, who led the study.
Giving an example of how people try to manage the emotional responses of other people, McCubbin said, "When we send an email and try to make a joke, we need to use a smiley face to tell a reader it's a joke so they don't misinterpret it and get angry."
However, "people with emotional dampening may have a hard time recognizing emotions," he said. For instance, at work they might think their boss is kidding when he is actually showing his anger.
Previous studies linked high blood pressure to a reduced ability to perceive negative emotions. The new study also shows a lessened perception of positive emotions, the researchers wrote. (Elevated blood pressure also has been shown to reduce sensitivity to pain.)
The physiological or mental changes behind this dampening are not yet known, the researchers added.
Blood pressure and emotions
McCubbin's work was based on data collected from 2000 to 2002. As part of a pilot study called HANDLS ("Healthy Aging in Nationally Diverse Longitudinal Samples"), McCubbin and his colleagues measured the blood pressure and emotional responses of 106 African- Americans of low socioeconomic status in Baltimore.
Researchers drove around Baltimore in a mobile research laboratory and also met with subjects in an apartment complex. They measured the participants' blood pressure and asked them to associate specific emotions — happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise, or no emotion — with sentences and photographs of faces.
For example, the following sentence was meant to convey anger: "Being sure that his players did nothing wrong, a coach demands an explanation from the referee about the penalty call."
People with elevated blood pressure had much more difficulty discerning such emotions, regardless of their education, age and other factors.
"We believe that there is a link between control of blood pressure and the central nervous system's assessment of emotional stimuli like threats in the environment," McCubbin said.
The study was published in the November-December issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
Emotional dampening may have harmful consequences for people, because they cannot properly assess situations, McCubbin said.
"If emotional dampening impairs your appraisal of threats in environment, it may be associated with particular high-risk behaviors because you fail to see the emotional consequences of risks," he told MyHealthNewsDaily.
Emotional dampening also may hinder work performance.
"If your boss is angry, you may misinterpret it and think the boss is kidding," he said. "This could contribute to psychosocial distress, impair your performance and may also engender mistrust because of misinterpretation."
Dr. Mustafa al'Absi of the University of Minnesota Medical School, who studies the relationship between high blood pressure and decreased pain sensitivity, said this study complements the body of research linking physiology to how the brain organizes emotions.
"People with high blood pressure might not detect signals like pain from heart attack, or signals from people around them who may express negative or positive emotions. If you are not able to appreciate people being upset, you may continue your behavior and make them more upset," said al'Absi, who was not involved in the new study.
Additional research would be needed to figure out why a correlation exists between high blood pressure and emotional dampening.
"We want to dig deeper to discover the underlying mental and physiological reasons for this finding," said study co-author Dr. Marcellus Merritt of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. "Is it that the person has stress management issues? Or is it part of their physiology – maybe family history of hypertension or cardiovascular disease?"
Merritt said he hopes to find ways to help people deal with stress and improve their emotional health.
"When you treat blood pressure, you enhance emotional processes," he said.
Pass it on: High blood pressure may go hand-in-hand with a lessened ability to detect others' emotions.