Nov. 8, 2011 at 8:38 AM ET
It’s no secret that high blood pressure ups your risk for heart attack and stroke. But now scientists are saying it could also affect how you perceive emotions.
In a new study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers found that individuals with higher than normal blood pressures not only had a tough time assigning emotions to text passages they read but also had problems recognizing angry, fearful, sad and happy faces when looking at photographs.
The phenomenon is called “emotional dampening,” a kind of reduced response to both positive and negative life events, explains lead author James McCubbin, professor of psychology at Clemson University.
In previous studies, individuals with emotional dampening showed reduced responses to both pain and stress.
According to McCubbin, missing emotional cues is like “... living in a world of email without smiley faces.”
“We put smiley faces in emails to show when we are just kidding,” he says. “Otherwise some people may misinterpret our humor and get angry.”
Indeed, folks who have a problem putting both verbal and non-verbal cues like expressions into the correct context, can have problems understanding subtleties in conversation, which can lead to poor job performance, communication problems and distrust of others. Since emotional dampening also applies to positive emotions, these folks may not reap the “restorative benefits” of hobbies, vacations, or even the support of friends and family, McCubbin says.
For the study, the researchers asked 106 African-American men and women, average age 53, to evaluate emotional expressions in faces and sentences using a special gauge called the Perception of Affect Test.
Blood pressure and other cardiac-related readings were measured continuously during the test.
After controlling for medication use, body mass index and mental state, folks with high blood pressure readings scored the lowest when it came to their ability to recognize emotions.
The scientists suspect that higher blood pressure and emotional dampening may have something to do with subtle changes in brain function.
Medications to reduce blood pressure may help people get their emotion-reading meters back on track, says McCubbin, but don’t expect it to happen overnight. He and his colleagues are now looking at how emotional dampening may influence risk-taking behaviors.
“We believe that people with emotional dampening problems have a harder time appraising threats,” says McCubbin, which could cause people not to follow a doctor’s advice about diet and exercise -- two good ways to help lower blood pressure.