Sexual Harassment and High Blood Pressure in Women

Via Peters

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Women who’ve experienced sexual-related trauma are encouraged to get regular blood pressure readings. Maskot/Getty Images
  • Researchers say women who’ve experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment have a higher risk for high blood pressure.
  • Experts say this type of trauma can increase stress within the body, resulting in a rise in blood pressure.
  • They say that the increased stress can also be heightened if a woman’s charges of sexual misconduct are not believed.

Women who experience sexual violence or workplace sexual harassment are at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure than women with no such trauma.

That’s according to research funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Researchers used the Nurse’s Health Study II to look for a connection between sexual violence or sexual harassment in the workplace and high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.

The scientists had data from 33,127 women after excluding those previously diagnosed with hypertension or cardiovascular disease. Those answering the health study were women between ages 24 and 42 years old living in the United States.

Participants answered questions about possible sexual harassment at work, physical or verbal, as well as whether they were ever pressured or made to have some unwanted sexual contact.

The researchers defined sexual contact as contact between someone else and your private parts or between you and someone else’s private parts.

Of the participants, 23 percent had experienced sexual assault, 12 percent had experienced workplace sexual harassment, and 6 percent had experienced both.

They also answered questions about high blood pressure and whether they took antihypertensive medication twice a year for 7 years.

“Our finding that experiencing both sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment had the highest risk of hypertension underscores the potential compounding effects of multiple sexual violence exposures on women’s long-term cardiovascular health,” Rebecca B. Lawn, PhD, of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston and lead author on the study, said in a press release.

Experts say psychological stress from trauma can contribute to high blood pressure.

“I am not surprised the body remembers,” Mary Sanchez, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, told Healthline. “A person who has experienced trauma is under much more stress than someone who has not experienced trauma.

“Often, with trauma, there are flashbacks,” she explained. “Imagine someone with a red shirt sexually assaulted you. Now, whenever you see red or someone who looks like your attacker, your heart quickens, and your hands get sweaty. This puts your body under so much stress.”

Sanchez said women frequently go through the stress of sexual trauma alone. Too often, they are not believed or taken seriously.

“Sexual assault and harassment are often underreported and minimized by others,” said Sanchez. “Women might hear comments such as, ‘That didn’t happen to you,’ or ‘That doesn’t count.’ But trauma is trauma, and only the person who experienced it can define their trauma. What might not seem like a big deal to one person can be a crisis to another.”

The dismissal of a person’s trauma can also increase stress, she noted.

If you have experienced sexual assault or workplace sexual harassment, talk with a professional therapist about your ordeal to help you process what happened.

Your therapist can also teach you coping skills.

In addition, a family physician can look into possible physical effects, such as high blood pressure.

Some steps you can take to lower blood pressure, according to Harvard Health, include:

  • Incorporate exercise into your daily routine. A half-hour at least 5 days a week can make a difference in your health. To help you stick with your plan, choose something you love to do, such as biking, dancing, or walking.
  • Try weightlifting, if you can. Strength training can help you increase muscle mass and make you feel fit.
  • Reduce your daily sodium intake. An app can help you keep track of how much you’re consuming. The recommended intake is 1,500 mg a day for people with high blood pressure.
  • Maintain a moderate weight. Even losing as little as 10 pounds could help lower your blood pressure.
  • Reduce alcoholic beverages. Try to stick to one drink a day at the most.
  • Integrate deep breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques into your daily routine.

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