Medically reviewed by Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP — Written by Sara Lindberg on February 17, 2021

The areas where you’re likely to feel stress or anxiety-related tension are in your neck and shoulders. Over time, this can lead to chronic pain as well as other health issues.

Fortunately, muscle tension in your neck and shoulders responds well to stretching, yoga, relaxation, and other stress management methods.

Let’s explore several simple techniques you can use to help release tension in your neck and shoulders, as well as some stress management strategies to help calm your mind and body.

How does stress and anxiety cause tension in your neck and shoulders?

When you experience a stressful event or a bout of anxiety, your muscles contract, sometimes forcefully. This is an automatic or reflex reaction. It’s known as a stress response or “fight or flight” response.

It’s your body’s way of gearing up to face a perceived physical threat that you’ll need to fight off or run away from. Along with muscle tension, you may also notice other physical symptoms when you’re stressed or anxious, such as:

  • a fast heart rate
  • quick, shallow breathing
  • cold skin
  • sweating

Although your body’s stress response is designed to help you deal with physical threats, your body responds in the same way when the threat isn’t physical. Your muscles may tighten up when you’re stuck in traffic, dealing with pressure at work, or watching the news.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), your muscles and other organs may only relax again once the perceived threat has passed.

If stress is ongoing — meaning the stressful situation doesn’t seem to have a clear end — your body may stay in a heightened state of readiness to face a threat. As a result, your muscles may stay tense and tight for much longer than they need to.

According to the APA, ongoing muscle tension in your neck and shoulders can lead to more serious issues like back and shoulder pain, body aches, and migraine and tension headaches.

Preventing stress-related neck and shoulder tension isn’t always easy to do, especially in today’s busy world. But, there are techniques and strategies that may help relieve muscle tension and ease pain and discomfort.

Here are five stretches and poses you can do on a daily basis to help relieve tension and tightness in your neck and shoulders.

1. Neck stretch

The neck stretch is a deep stretch that eases tension in your neck and helps improve your range of motion.

  1. Stand tall with your left arm at your side.
  2. Place your right hand on your head with your fingers pointing to the left side.
  3. Gently pull your head toward the right side until you feel a stretch in the left side of your neck.
  4. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and return to center.
  5. Repeat on left side.
  6. Do 2 to 3 times on each side.

2. Neck release

The neck release is a gentle way to loosen tension in both your shoulders and neck.

  1. Stand tall with both arms at your sides.
  2. Lower your head and bring your chin toward your chest.
  3. Gently tilt your head towards the right side and pause for 30 seconds. You should feel a stretch in the left side of your neck.
  4. Bring your head back to the center and lift to the starting position.
  5. Repeat before changing sides.
  6. Do 3 to 5 times on each side.

3. Child’s Pose

Child’s Pose or Balasana is a well-known yoga pose that can help relieve neck and back pain. It’s also a gentle stretch that helps you relax.

  1. Get on your hands and knees with your palms flat on the floor, wrists under your shoulders, and knees under your hips.
  2. Sit back on your heels, lengthen your spine, and walk your hands in front of you. Make sure to hinge at your hips.
  3. Fold forward and keep your arms extended in front of you.
  4. Hold this position for 60 to 90 seconds. Focus on your breath while you release tension in your neck and shoulders.
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat.
  6. Do 2 to 3 times.

4. Cat-Cow Pose

The Cat-Cow or Chakravakasana is a yoga pose that allows you to stretch your back, torso, and neck, helping to release tension in these areas.

  1. Get on your hands and knees with your palms flat on the floor, wrists under your shoulders, and knees under your hips.
  2. Inhale and move into Cow Pose. Drop your belly towards the mat and lift your chin and chest. Look up at the ceiling. Open your chest and shoulders. Pause for a few seconds.
  3. Exhale and move into Cat Pose. Pull your belly toward your spine and round your back toward the ceiling. You should be looking down at the mat. Pause for a few seconds.
  4. Inhale and come back into Cow Pose and repeat the sequence.
  5. Do 10 to 12 times.

5. Thread the needle

Thread the needle is a stretch that helps release tension in your back, neck, and shoulders.

  1. Get on your hands and knees with your palms flat on the floor, wrists under your shoulders, and knees under your hips.
  2. Slide your right hand (palm up) on the floor to the left side of your body. Your body will rotate with the movement, and your right shoulder will touch the floor as you look to the left side. Use your left hand to support your weight.
  3. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds and return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat on the left side.
  5. Do 2 to 3 times on each side.

Other options for neck and shoulder tension

Yoga is an excellent activity to help release stress-related tension in your neck and shoulders. In fact, one study found that 9 weeks of yoga resulted in pain relief and functional improvements in people with neck pain.

There are also some other strategies you can use to help relieve or prevent tension in your neck. For instance you can:

  • Apply a warm compress to the tight area.
  • Spend a few minutes doing a self-massage.
  • Soak in a warm tub, and add a few drops of aromatherapy oil for extra relaxation.
  • Adjust your workstation, so your computer is at eye level to avoid neck strain.
  • Check your posture while you’re at your work desk — keep your hips, shoulders, and ears in a straight line.
  • Get up and move away from your workstation for a few minutes every hour.
  • At night, use a pillow that offers good support for your neck, and is designed to keep your head and neck aligned.

Tips for managing stress and anxiety

We all experience stress. It’s almost impossible not to feel anxious or stressed at some point or another. But, just as your body has an automatic response to stress, it also has a built-in system to calm you down.

Known as the relaxation response, it helps you recover from the “fight or flight” response. It brings all your systems back to normal and returns your body to a calm, resting state. The relaxation response also helps protect your body from health issues related to the stress response.

There are a variety of skills and strategies you can use to help the relaxation response kick in. Here are some of them:

Stress management skills

  • Exercise and physical activity. Moving your body, even for 20 minutes a day, may help lower your overall stress levels and reduce tension in your muscles. If you can, get outdoors and take a brisk walk in nature.
  • Breathing exercises. Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is one of the simplest ways to relax. Voluntarily controlling your breathing can signal your entire body to relax. With belly breathing, you breathe in deeply through your nose, allowing your belly to expand, and exhale through your mouth. Once you know how to breathe this way, you can use this skill often to help you relax.
  • Yoga. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative HealthTrusted Source, mind and body practices like yoga can help relieve stress, reduce anxiety, and boost your overall well-being. If you’re new to yoga, you may want to begin with a 10-minute restorative yoga session.
  • Meditation. ResearchTrusted Source has shown that practicing meditation may help reduce the inflammation response caused by stress, and also decrease anxiety. Start with 5 minutes of meditation at a time, and increase by a few minutes each week.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). According to a 2013 studyTrusted Source, PMR can help reduce symptoms of chronic neck pain. To do PMR, simply tense each muscle group in your body one at a time, and hold for 5 seconds. On the exhale, relax the muscles for 10 to 20 seconds before moving to the next muscle group.

Keep in mind that as with any new skill, regular practice is the key. These practices may not work for you right away and that’s OK. But, as you use them over time, you’ll likely find that they help return your body to a calmer, more restful state.

The bottom line

Tension and tightness in your neck and shoulders is a common symptom of stress and anxiety. It’s part of your body’s way of gearing up to survive a perceived physical threat. In other words, it’s part of the “fight or flight” stress response.

Fortunately, muscle tension in your neck and shoulders responds well to several different techniques, including targeted stretching, yoga, and other relaxation methods.

However, if the pain in your neck or shoulders is severe, or doesn’t improve with stretches or other self-care techniques, make sure to follow up with your doctor.

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