Check blood pressure if other people's emotions are a mystery to you

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No doubt you have felt your heart pound in fear or excitement, or felt like a certain co-worker's annoying habits make your blood pressure rise. According to Clemson University psychology professor James A. McCubbin and colleagues, however, your body may also work the other way around.

In a study published in November 2011's issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine (PDF), McCubbin and colleagues found that study participants with high blood pressure had problems rating happiness, sadness, fear, disgust and surprise in photos of faces and in written sentences, a problem they call "emotional dampening."

Because your ability to judge what other people are feeling is an essential part of communication, this emotional dampening can cause big problems in the workplace, at home and in social situations.

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“It’s like living in a world of email without smiley faces,” McCubbin explains in a written statement in the Clemson newsroom. “We put smiley faces in emails to show when we are just kidding. Otherwise some people may misinterpret our humor and get angry.”

Such situations can cause a lot of social stress, which can have a negative effect on cardiovascular health. Having trouble relating to others and not feeling like part of the group can cause you to become isolated, which is also unhealthy for your heart. And while you're having trouble deciphering your friends' emotions, they might also have trouble deciphering yours.

According to research such as a 1992 study in the journal Health Psychology, people with high blood pressure do not show their negative emotions as well as people with normal blood pressure. While the participants in the study rated their own emotional health the same regardless of their blood pressure, the doctors who examined them rated them as expressing fewer negative emotions. Since the people with high blood pressure showed less emotional distress, their doctors tended to focus only on their physical issues and paid less attention to their psychological and social needs.

The double-whammy of difficulty reading other people's emotions combined with difficulty expressing your own feelings can cause a high amount of social stress. Research such as a 2006 study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine says that social stress can cause increased blood pressure. Without proper treatment, this can turn into a self-perpetuating downward spiral that can cause serious damage to your health.

While the exact link between blood pressure and emotional awareness isn't clear, this issue is no laughing matter--cardiovascular disease remains the number-one killer of women and men in the U.S. To protect yourself, check your blood pressure regularly and follow your physician's advice for a heart-healthy lifestyle.

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