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Why Stress Causes Neck Tension

Understand, why stress causes neck tension, back pain, shoulder pain and headaches and what you can do to help, alleviate the symptoms.

Imagine you are about to be attacked by a wild animal! You tuck your head and scrunch up your shoulders around your ears. It's a natural instinctive reaction designed to protect the vital arteries in your neck. You'll also receive a surge of the flight or flight hormones adrenalin and cortisol.

These protective mechanisms would have been very useful back in humanity's caveman days but certainly won't help you run away from a deadline, the bills or Coronavirus. These kind of modern day stresses don't go away like the wild animal would either. They are persistent, maybe even constant in modern life. Unfortunately that also means our cortisol levels remain high and our shoulders remain pulled into a raised position by the trapezius and levator scapula muscles.

When muscles, such as those around the neck, remain tense and contracted for long periods, this results in neck tension. When tension and stress build in the neck, muscles may feel tight or achy. Neck pain may also spread to the shoulder and back or be accompanied by a headache.

Now you understand where your neck tension is coming from, here is what you can do you help relieve the pain:

  • Get a Massage

One of the best ways to decrease the amount of pain is to massage the affecting muscles. Note that where you feel the pain is not always where the pain is coming from. A trained therapist will be able to identify and work the correct areas.

  • Stretch It Out

Stress-related pain may go away more quickly if you stretch out the muscles. Below are 5 easy exercises you can easily do in the comfort of your own home or even sat at your desk.

  • Heat it Up

Using a hot compress will help relax the muscles.

  • Careful with the Coffee

Drinking caffeine increases the levels of cortisol in your body and contribute to undue tension in your body.

  • Exercise the Pain Away

Exercise has numerous health benefits, and it can also decrease the pain in your muscles. Time in the gym can increase minimise stress, lengthen tight muscles and relieve pain in the neck, back, and shoulders, even with as little as a single session.


Stretching helps improve flexibility and range of motion, whilst exercising increases muscle strength. Improving muscle flexibility and strength can help support proper posture and relieve neck tension. People may find the following stretches and exercises beneficial in preventing or relieving neck tension:

Basic neck stretch

  • Sit or stand up straight with the neck in a neutral position and the arms and shoulders relaxed.

  • Reach the right hand over the head, placing the palm on the left side of the head.

  • Stretch the left side of the neck by gently pulling the head over to the right.

  • Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.

Neck rolls

Neck rolls involve the following series of movements:

  • Begin with the head in a neutral position.

  • Drop the chin toward the chest.

  • Slowly roll the head to one side so that the ear almost touches the shoulder.

  • Continue rolling the head in the same direction, allowing the top of the head to face backward.

  • Bring the head around to the other shoulder.

  • Complete a full rotation by bringing the head to the front of the body, keeping the chin tucked into the chest.

  • Do 5–10 neck rolls in one direction and then repeat the exercise going in the opposite direction. Slowly is best.

Forward neck stretch

  • Sit or stand with a straight back, keeping the shoulders and arms relaxed.

  • Interlace the fingers and place the palms on the back of the head with the elbows facing forward.

  • Gently pull the head down toward the chest.

  • Hold this stretch for 30 seconds.

Side-to-side neck exercise

  • Sit upright with the shoulders back and the head and neck in a neutral position.

  • Slowly rotate the head from side to side, keeping the chin parallel to the ground.

  • Keep the rotations small to avoid overextending the neck muscles.

  • Complete 5–10 rotations on each side.

Shoulder blade squeeze

  • Start with the shoulders in a relaxed position.

  • Squeeze the shoulder blades together behind the body whilst also pulling them down away from the ears.

  • Hold for 15 seconds.

  • Repeat this exercise 3-5 times.

If any of these exercises cause pain, STOP, See a professional.

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