Neck pain is a common response to ongoing stress or anxiety. If you’ve ever been stressed out for long periods of time, you may know this first-hand, but did you ever wonder why this happens?
Put simply: Your emotional state can affect your physical one. There is ongoing research confirming this mind and body connection, and this is the case when it comes to stress-induced neck pain.
In this article, we’ll discuss the science behind how stress affects your muscles, and five things you can do today to start improving your neck pain.
What Causes the Neck to Hurt When You’re Stressed or Anxious?
To fully understand why the neck hurts when stressed or anxious, it’s important to understand a concept called “fight or flight1.” This term refers to a built-in stress response that all mammals have1. When something threatening or stressful happens, the body responds with a nearly-instant sequence of hormonal and physiological changes, to prepare us to flee for safety1.
This evolutionary survival mechanism activates the sympathetic nervous system2 and starts sending energy to the parts of the body that would help you flee or fight. For example, the adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline, the heart rate increases, blood vessels in the arms and legs dilate, and the muscles tense up2.
This stress response is meant to work short-term1. For example, if a predator attacks you, your body would respond with this cascade of reactions so you could survive.
However, many people are under chronic or long-term stress, which puts the body in a nearly-constant state of fight or flight. For these people, the muscles in their body will be taut, tense, and in an almost constant state of guardedness2.
In particular, people tend to carry a lot of stress in their neck and shoulders3. When stressed, we raise our shoulders and tense these muscles for long periods of time, which can result in neck pain3.
This neck pain may be exacerbated even more by some common things we do to cope with that stress, like looking at our phones, being on the computer, or binge-watching a show3.
Check out our expert-recommended Mattresses for Sciatica Pain for the best spinal alignment.
Looking for ways to support your neck at night? Consider exploring our top picks for the best pillows for neck pain.
Top 5 Stress-Related Neck Pain Remedies
If your neck pain is caused by stress in your life, the best way to deal with it is to address the underlying causes of stress and practice stress management4. By making lifestyle changes to prevent these stressors and better cope with them if they do come up, you’ll lower the likelihood that your neck pain returns4.
Minimizing the stressors in your life may be a long-term goal, but if you’re dealing with neck pain now, there are some more immediate solutions.
Get a Gentle Massage
A gentle massage5 can alleviate your neck pain in two ways: it can help calm your nervous system, moving you from fight-or-flight into a more relaxed state, and it can directly work on loosening the muscles in the tense area.
While you can massage your neck yourself, it is better to receive a massage from somebody else. Not only will you be able to fully relax your muscles in this way, but also, safe physical touch can activate the body’s “relaxation response5.”
Stretching your neck6 is helpful for both preventing neck pain and managing pain when it is present. Ideally, you should stretch your neck about once an hour – especially if you are working on a computer all day6. Once neck pain has started, stretching and strength training can help alleviate your discomfort. However, if your neck pain is due to a recent injury, you should wait until to start any new exercises6.
The following are some recommended stretches for neck pain7, which can be done from home or at work.
- Lower the chin – Keeping your shoulders straight, lower your chin. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Then slowly lift your chin to your initial position.
- Turn the head – Keeping your shoulders straight, turn your head to one side. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Slowly return to your first position. Then repeat this stretch turning your head to the opposite side.
- Tilt the head – Tilt your head, moving your ear toward your shoulder, but avoid raising your shoulder to your ear. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Slowly return to your starting position. Then repeat this stretch tilting your heading to the opposite side.
Another tip is to practice mindfulness by slowing down and paying attention to the present moment. Oftentimes stress is either about the past or the future, so intentionally keeping your thoughts on the present could help reduce stress and anxiety8.
One of the best ways to pay attention to the present moment is to introduce a meditation practice to your life. There are a variety of different types of meditation, but modern imaging shows9 that they can all positively affect the brain and mental health. Research reveals that meditation can decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD9. Decreasing these symptoms should ultimately help relax the tension in your neck2.
If seated or still meditation is not a good fit for you, mindful movement practices like yoga can be beneficial to both your neck and your stress levels. In fact, research10 reveals that just a few minutes of yoga can drastically improve your overall health and your ability to cope with stress.
Stop Smoking and Drinking
Research shows11 that smoking cigarettes increases the level of carbon monoxide in the body, which can ultimately decrease muscle mass and strength. Alcohol has been shown to damage muscle tissue12 as well, especially in those with alcohol use disorder.
Pain in the spine (including the neck) can be exacerbated by a lack of strength in the supporting muscles, so any ongoing habit that weakens these muscles will only make your neck pain worse4.
Additionally, both smoking and drinking may be done in an attempt to relieve stress. These coping mechanisms may work temporarily, but experts advise that these habits will ultimately add stress to the body and mind4.
Incorporate Daily Exercise
Obesity and a lack of exercise are two common causes of neck and back pain, especially when coupled with stress4. Introducing daily moderate exercise can release endorphins and improve overall health, which will both reduce stress and strengthen the muscles around the spine4.
Experts recommend moderate exercise immediately after feeling stressed in order to relieve muscle tension1. In fact, just a 10-minute, brisk walk can help improve your mood13 and increase feelings of calm when a stressor comes up.
In addition to moderate exercise in response to stress, you should also be active each day to prevent stress buildup1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention14 currently recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise, plus two days of strength training, per week.
When stress or anxiety levels are high, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and our muscles tighten, readying us for action2. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which many of us are under chronic stress, and this means our muscles may often be tense. Oftentimes, this shows up in the neck and shoulder area, which can be exacerbated by a modern lifestyle full of looking at screens3.
To eliminate neck pain caused by stress, the best thing you can do is make lifestyle changes that limit the stressors in your life. This can include meditation, yoga, exercise, and limiting unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking. Additionally, both regular massage and stretching the area can improve your symptoms5,6.
NOTE: If your emotional well-being is causing more than moderate-to-severe neck pain, consult your doctor right away.
- “Understanding the stress response”. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response. 2020.
- “Stress effects on the body”. American Psychological Association. Last modified March 8, 2023. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body.
- Godman, Heidi. “Surprising causes of neck pain”. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/surprising-causes-of-neck-pain. 2023.
- Trivedi, Kavita. “Easy tips to relieve stress-related neck and back pain”. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. https://utswmed.org/medblog/stress-back-pain/. 2019.
- Burgan, Beth. “How Does Massage Work?”. University of Minnesota. Webpage accessed August 9, 2023. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-massage-work.
- “Neck pain or spasms – self care”. Mount Sinai. Webpage accessed August 9, 2023. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/selfcare-instructions/neck-pain-or-spasms-self-care.
- “Neck Stretches”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified December 9, 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/multimedia/neck-stretches/vid-20084697.
- Ferguson, Sian. “How to Live In The Moment And Be More Present”. Psych Central. Last modified September 12, 2022. https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-it-really-means-to-be-in-the-present-moment#tips-for-being-more-present.
- “Meditation”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified May 22, 2022. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17906-meditation.
- “Yoga for better mental health”. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/yoga-for-better-mental-health. 2021.
- Wiener, R. Constance., Findley, Patricia A., et. al. “Relationship between smoking status and muscle strength in the United States older adults”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7871150/. 2020.
- Simon PhD, Liz., Jolley MD, Sarah E., Molina MD, Patricia E. “Alcoholic Myopathy: Pathophysiologic Mechanisms and Clinical Implications”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513686/. 2017.
- Edwards, Meghan K., Loprinzi, Paul D. “Experimental effects of brief, single bouts of walking and meditation on mood profile in young adults”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6064756/. 2018.
- “How much physical activity do adults need?”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last modified June 2, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm.