Often, mental health symptoms can also take a toll on your body. Anxiety, for example, could lead to muscle tension. But this is manageable.

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Anxiety can sometimes cause pain and tension in the neck and shoulders. But there are a few ways to manage. (turk_stock_photographer/Getty Images)

The recurring, intrusive thoughts associated with anxiety can sometimes cause changes in thought patterns and emotional responses. Your body reacts physically to those thoughts and feelings too.

The neck and shoulders are common areas for anxiety-related tension to show up.

However, there are a number of ways to relieve shoulder and neck pain. Managing anxiety symptoms can also help reduce the physical effects.

Yes, anxiety can cause tension in your neck and shoulders.

When you experience symptoms of anxiety, your body is engaged too. The natural stress response puts you into a state of readiness, and this may involve mental and physical tension.

The flight, fight, or freeze response is a helpful way your body gets ready for danger. When there’s a perceived threat, your body will initiate many changes that help you become alert and ready to face or avoid the threat.

If you live with anxiety, your body may frequently be in a state of fight or flight, and you may feel the effects in your muscles.

Usually, the muscles release tension once a perceived danger or stressful situation passes. However, anxiety can cause feelings of stress and physical tension to last for hours or days.

Your muscles aren’t meant to be tense for extended periods. This can quickly become painful and can also contribute to migraines and tension headaches.

What is psychosomatic pain?

The mind and body are linked in complex and diverse ways. Psychosomatic pain, which is more commonly called somatic pain, is pain that has no direct physical cause and often comes along with mental or emotional pain or discomfort.

For example, a stress response leads to changes in hormones and the nervous system that decrease the effectiveness of the immune system.

Similarly, muscle tension naturally follows an anxiety-related stress response as the body prepares to face the danger perceived or caused by the anxious thoughts.

If you live with an anxiety disorder, you may want to be proactive, not just reactive, when it comes to muscle tension or neck and back pain.

Practicing some or all of these techniques can help your body manage stress and anxiety so it doesn’t manifest in pain and tension.


Yoga is a physical activity that incorporates stretches, poses, focus, and meditative breathing.

This combination may be helpful for your mental health and for relieving stress, pain, and tension in your body.

There are also a few yoga poses for anxiety relief.

Research backs up yoga’s effectiveness for reducing anxiety.

A 2018 study found that practicing gym yoga for 16 weeks helped participants reduce stress and symptoms of anxiety. It also improved their sense of well-being.

Similarly, another 2018 study in women found that participants experienced decreased symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression after 12 regular sessions of Hatha yoga.

Yoga sessions don’t need to be long. It’s the regularity of the exercise that tends to help reduce muscle tension and stress.

You can sign up for yoga classes in person or online or access free yoga classes and instruction via YouTube.

Neck stretches

Neck stretches are particularly helpful when you’re in a situation where you can’t get up and move around, such as when you’re sitting at your desk.

To use neck stretches to relieve tension and pain, try the following:

  • Gently lean your left ear toward your left shoulder.
  • You can deepen the stretch by placing your left hand on the right side of your head and gently pulling toward your left shoulder. Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Repeat on the other side.

You can follow with this stretch:

  • Gently stretch the back of your neck by leaning your head forward to feel a gentle tug on the back of your neck.
  • Hold for a slow count of 10.
  • Tilt your head upward to stretch the front of your neck for another slow count of 10.

Remember to be gentle. Neck stretches shouldn’t hurt.

Try breathing deeply while you stretch to provide more oxygen to your body, which helps calm your mind too.

Shoulder rolls

This is another stretch that’s easy to do while sitting at your desk.

Try this:

  • With arms and hands by your sides, roll your shoulders forward for a count of 10.
  • Roll your shoulders backward for a count of 10.
  • Repeat at least two more times.

Apply a warm compress

Heat brings blood to your muscles, which helps soften the muscle tissue and allows it to stretch and relax.

Try this:

  • Place a blanket or towel between your skin and a heating pad that’s not too hot.
  • Don’t leave the heating pad on for longer than 15 minutes.
  • After waiting for 20 minutes, you can apply the compress for 15 more minutes.

Take a warm shower

A warm shower can relax your muscles similarly to a hot compress. The heat helps bring blood to your muscles and helps them relax.

To make it even more relaxing, try listening to soothing music and doing neck and shoulder stretches while you shower.

Change position or move around

Anxiety may have you locked into place. Try taking a short break.

You can walk down the hall or take a quick stroll around the block. The movement and change of scenery can help calm and relax your aching muscles.

Neck and shoulder massage

You don’t have to schedule an appointment with a massage therapist if you feel tension coming on.

Instead, you could use a foam roller or a rollerball to self-massage the tense areas of your shoulders and neck.

Hand massagers are another good way to relieve tension in your neck and shoulders when you don’t have someone there to help you.

You could even try placing your hand in a “C” position and applying pressure for 20 seconds on sore spots. You can then release and move to another area, holding the pressure for at least 20 seconds.

Treatment for anxiety

Anxiety is a treatable mental health condition. A wide range of treatment options are available, and many people find that a combination of techniques works best for them.

There are also numerous natural options for reducing anxiety, and you may find them helpful for releasing muscle tension as well.

Anxiety treatments may include:

Was this helpful?

Anxiety symptoms can lead to emotional and physical changes that cause tension in your neck and shoulders.

But it is possible to manage both anxiety and muscle tension.

Yoga, stretches, and warm compresses can help ease the pain and discomfort that come with neck and shoulder tension.

Relieving muscle tension can, in turn, help you better manage your anxiety symptoms.