Why does stress make my neck and shoulders hurt?
One comment I frequently hear is “I carry my stress in my neck and shoulders”. We all know what it’s like to feel stressed or anxious. If you pay attention you might notice your jaw clench, your shoulders shrug and breathing becomes fast and shallow. Often, you’ll start to feel tension in your neck and spend the day trying to loosen it. You might even develop a headache.These changes in posture and muscle tension can place physical stress on our muscles, joints and nerves, leading to stiffness and pain. In a cruel twist, the posture that’s causing pain can also influence how we feel. Poor posture can also prevent us from recovering from a bad mood (Ref. 1).
How common is stress?
Anxiety and stress related disorders are incredibly common. In europe, 4-10% of the population experience anxiety (Ref. 2). This increases to 7 out of 10 people suffering from illness (Ref. 2). Most stress is related to our health, family, work, bills and other commitments. If it’s an emotional or cognitive stress why does it affect our body?
The fight or flight response.
Stress is actually a survival technique. The well known fight or flight response. Humans used to be in the middle of the food chain. Life was often dangerous and when faced with danger we needed to react. Muscles tense, blood pressure and heart rate increase. At the same time our ‘rest and digest system’ shuts down. We divert energy away from long term survival strategies and put it into surviving the next few minutes.Once the danger past we moved on. These days it’s rare we face a true fight or flight scenario. Instead, we have prolonged stress that goes on for weeks, months or even years. It places stress on our bodies and at the same time delays healing. We start to hurt.
What can you do?
Regular exercise can reduce and prevent anxiety and psychological disorders (Ref. 3). At the same time it will help to use up some of the fight or flight response and bring you back towards a more calm state. Helping to relax your neck and shoulders.Take a minute to move away from your desk and take a few deep breaths. This helps to engage the rest and digest system which will lower your heart rate and blood pressure.We all learn good and bad habits and sometimes your posture and pain becomes a sustained habit. If you can’t make the change by yourself then seeking help from a healthcare professional is a good idea.Chiropractors are best known for treating back pain but neck pain is a close second. Our goal is to improve movement, balance and posture, to help reduce stress placed on muscles, joints and nerves. That might be through a combination of manual therapy, exercises and lifestyle advice.It’s incredible how fast the body can change. The “I’m always stiff” person can quickly become a model for others to follow. Laughing about their old habits and building on the new. You can do the same.
- Lotte Veenstra, Iris K. Schneider & Sander L. Koole (2016): Embodied mood regulation: the impact of body posture on mood recovery, negative thoughts, and mood- congruent recall, Cognition and Emotion, DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2016.1225003
- Remes et al. A systematic review of reviews on the prevalence of anxiety disorders in adult populations. Brain and Behavior, 2016; 6(7), e00497, doi: 10.1002/brb3.497
- Peluso, Marco Aurélio Monteiro, & Andrade, Laura Helena Silveira Guerra de. (2005). Physical activity and mental health: the association between exercise and mood. Clinics, 60(1), 61-70. https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S1807-59322005000100012