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How to Relieve Neck Pain Caused by Stress and Anxiety

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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.

How Does Stress and Anxiety Cause Neck Pain?

To fully understand why the neck hurts when stressed or anxious, it’s important to understand a concept called “fight or flight”.1 This term refers to a built-in stress response that all mammals have. 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 safety.

This evolutionary survival mechanism activates the sympathetic nervous system and starts sending energy to the parts of the body that would help you flee or fight.2 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 up.

This stress response is meant to work short-term.1 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 guardedness.2

In particular, people tend to carry a lot of stress in their neck and shoulders.3 When stressed, we raise our shoulders and tense these muscles for long periods of time, which can result in neck pain.

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 show.3

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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 management.4 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 returns.

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 massage may 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.5

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 response”.5


Stretching your neck is helpful for both preventing neck pain and managing pain when it is present.6

Ideally, you should stretch your neck about once an hour – especially if you are working on a computer all day. 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 exercises.6

The following are some recommended stretches for neck pain, which can be done from home or at work.7

  • 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.

Practice Mindfulness

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 anxiety.8

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 shows that they can positively affect the brain and mental healthby decreasing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD.9

Decreasing these symptoms should ultimately help relax the tension in your neck.2

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, research reveals that just a few minutes of yoga can drastically improve your overall health and your ability to cope with stress.10

Stop Smoking and Drinking

Smoking cigarettes increases carbon monoxide in the body, which can ultimately decrease muscle mass and strength.11 Meanwhile, alcohol has been shown to damage muscle tissue as well, especially in those with alcohol use disorder.12

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 worse.4

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 mind.4

Incorporate Daily Exercise

Obesity and a lack of exercise are two common causes of neck and back pain, especially when coupled with stress.4 Introducing daily moderate exercise can release endorphins and improve overall health, which will both reduce stress and strengthen the muscles around the spine.4

Experts recommend moderate exercise immediately after feeling stressed in order to relieve muscle tension.1 In fact, just a 10-minute, brisk walk can help improve your mood and increase feelings of calm when a stressor comes up.13

Tips for Managing Stress and Anxiety

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress levels among American adults aged 35 to 44 increased to 58 percent, a 10 percent rise since 2019.14 In 2024, mental health diagnoses also increased among this group, jumping up to 45 percent, a 14-percent spike that the APA states is the highest increase to date. They go on to say that adults aged 18 to 34 still reported the highest among of mental illnesses in 2024 at 50 percent. They cite a number of reasons for the increases in stress levels, including the COVID-19 pandemic, global conflicts, racism and racial injustice, inflation, and climate-related issues.

With so many people under stress, whether temporary or long-term, it’s vital to manage ways to manage these emotions. The following tips are examples of ways you can manage stress and anxiety.

  • Aromatherapy – Aromatherapy utilizes the power of scents to help mitigate stress. Of course, the most well-known scent for anxiety relief is lavender.15
  • Regular exercise – Exercise is not only great for your physical health, but it benefits your mental health as well.16 We recommend making time for exercises that are fun for you so you’re more likely to stick to a regular workout plan.
  • Cold plunge – Research has linked cold plunge therapy to helping with depression and anxiety.17
  • Sauna – Saunas a great way to relax, and using a sauna before bed may even help you sleep better. You can either use one at the gym or buying an at-home sauna.
  • Establishing a better work-life balance – It can be easy to overwork yourself, especially if things are really busy at work. However, it’s important to set boundaries and create a better work-life balance for yourself.
  • Meditation – Meditation is a fantastic way to help clear your mind. Doing this in the morning is a great way to start the day, but it can be equally helpful at night to calm down.
  • Yoga – Along with the workout benefits, yoga is considered a popular way to alleviate stress.18
  • Warm baths – Taking a warm bath can help you wind down at the end of a busy day.
  • Massages – Massages can help work out tension built up in your muscles due to stress.
  • Creative outlets – Creative outlets like painting or playing music are some examples of ways to keep yourself from worrying.
  • Reading – Reading is highly relaxing, especially before bed as part of your nightly routine.

Final Word of Advice

When stress or anxiety levels are high, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and our muscles tighten, readying us for action.2 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 screens.3

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 symptoms.5, 6

The Advisor Says

If your emotional well-being is causing more than moderate-to-severe neck pain, consult your doctor right away.

Jill Zwarensteyn

Jill Zwarensteyn


About Author

Jill Zwarensteyn is the editor for Sleep Advisor and a certified sleep science coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Combination Sleeper

Education & Credentials

  • Certified Sleep Science Coach


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  2. “Stress effects on the body”. American Psychological Association. Last modified March 8, 2024. .
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  4. Trivedi, Kavita. “Easy tips to relieve stress-related neck and back pain”. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. 2019.  
  5. Burgan, Beth. “How Does Massage Work?”. University of Minnesota. Webpage accessed August 9, 2024.  
  6. “Neck pain or spasms – self care”. Mount Sinai. Webpage accessed August 9, 2024. 
  7. “Neck Stretches”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified December 9, 2021.
  8. Ferguson, Sian. “How to Live In The Moment And Be More Present”. Psych Central. Last modified September 12, 2022.  
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  14. “Stress in America 2024”. American Psychological Association. 2024.
  15. “Stressed Out? Aromatherapy Can Help You to Feel Calmer”. Cleveland Clinic. 2015.
  16. “Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified August 3, 2022.
  17. Mooventhan, A., Nivethitha, L. “Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body”. North American Journal of Medical Sciences. 2014.
  18. “Yoga: What You Need To Know”. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Last modified August 2024.