We live in an ever-demanding world. Despite the advances in technology and improved living conditions, there are probably more demands placed on us than ever before. And dealing with these demands can lead to stress. While stress can cause anxiety and other negative emotions, it can also affect us physically. Prolonged periods of stress (or even a sudden onset) can cause muscle tension, particularly in the head, shoulders, and neck.
But why does stress cause these physical symptoms and what can you do to reduce stress-related pain and muscle tension? Read on to find out more.
Why Does Stress Cause Pain and Muscle Tension?
When our stress levels are elevated, our brain sends a signal to our nerves indicating that they should adopt a ‘protection mode’. The brain instinctively reacts to thoughts of fear and needs the muscles to brace to protect the body from a physical attack. The result is a tightening and tensing of the muscles which lead to a decrease in blood circulation and a build-up of lactic acid within the muscles – like the soreness we feel after a day of strenuous exercise. This tightness and tension is usually felt in the head, shoulders, and neck, although you may also feel it in other areas such as the jaw, chest or stomach. If the tension continues for a long time, the tightness may start to become more painful.
But stress-related muscle pain and tension is not just caused by emotional stress. It can occur because of the physical stress that happens when you’re in the same position for long periods, by having poor posture or by performing repetitive movements.
What Can You Do to Reduce Stress-Related Pain?
Experiencing stress-related pain doesn’t necessarily indicate that you have overly tight muscles. So there’s no need to adopt a strenuous stretching routine. However, there are many things you can do to decrease the chances of it happening and to ease the pain and tension if it’s causing you problems.
One of the simplest ways to reduce tension in your muscles is to breathe. When you’re feeling anxious or stressed your breathing tends to become shallower, faster, and shorter and you may find that you’re holding your breath. Simple breathing techniques can help to regulate and slow your breathing. They can also help to calm your mind.
Getting up and moving around can help to reduce the tightness and tension experienced when you’re in one position for too long. It’s recommended that you move around for at least three minutes out of every hour. Take a short walk or get up and perform some basic stretches.
Taking regular exercise can help with stress-related muscle tension, especially if you get out into the fresh air. Spending time in nature is particularly beneficial for reducing stress and walking will utilise your muscles without putting too much demand on them.
Practicing yoga is also a good way to reduce both physical and emotional stress as it incorporates stretches with meditative breathing and requires you to look inwards as you focus on adopting the yoga poses. This combination can help to relieve the stress, pain and tension in your body while improving your mental health and feeling of well-being. You don’t have to sign up for hour-long sessions. Regular shorter sessions will be equally as beneficial.
While it is recommended that you get up and move around every hour, we know that sometimes that just isn’t possible. In this instance, performing a series of stretches at your desk can be particularly helpful.
Here are a couple of simple neck and shoulder stretches that can be performed at any time.
- Move your left ear towards your left shoulder, making the movement slow and gentle. To deepen the stretch, you can place your hand on the right side of your head and gently pull the head towards your shoulder. Hold the position for 5-10 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
- Gently move your head forwards towards your chest to feel a stretch in the back of your neck. Hold for ten seconds and then return your head to neutral.
- Place your arms and hands by your sides and roll your shoulders forward ten times. Then roll them backwards ten times. Repeat as many times as you like.
These exercises can be performed whenever you feel tension in your neck and shoulders and can be accompanied by some deep breathing. But remember that you should never force your head and neck into a position that feels uncomfortable.
It is possible to provide relief for tense muscles with self-massage. Using a foam roller or a massage ball – (either smooth or with spikes) can help to ease out the tense areas around the neck and shoulders. If you don’t have access to either of these, simply placing your hands on the sore areas and applying pressure for 10 to 20 seconds can help.
Another way to replicate the massage techniques of a professional massage therapist is to invest in a massage gun. These handheld devices use percussive massage therapy to pound the muscles. This increases blood circulation to remove the build-up of lactic acid that causes the pain. It also relaxes the muscle tissues and eases out knots and tension. The REBELTMPRO massage gun has been designed to operate at speeds of up to 3000 hits per minute and comes with 7 distinct attachments so that you can safely use it on different areas of your body. In addition to the physical benefits, it also helps to reduce stress and muscular tension by encouraging your brain to release endorphins and increase serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ chemicals.
Apply a Warm Compress
Applying heat to your muscles will encourage blood into the tissues that will, in turn, soften the tissue and allow it to stretch more easily and relax. You can use a specially designed heat pad that can be warmed in the microwave. The beans inside will retain the heat. However, be careful to protect the skin by placing a towel or cloth between your skin and the compress as the beans inside can get very hot. Leave in position for about fifteen minutes for the best effect.
Take a Warm Shower or Bath
Taking a shower or bath will help to ease tension in the same way as applying a warm compress. The feeling of warm water pounding your shoulders and neck can feel very therapeutic as can lying in a warm bath. The warmth of the water will boost your circulation and help your muscles to relax.
Working at a desk that’s too low or too high in a non-supportive chair can play havoc with your posture. If you do have to spend hours in the same place sitting down, make sure that you have an ergonomically designed chair.
There are things we can do to reduce the chances of suffering from stress-related muscle tension and pain. However, if you’re already experiencing aches and pains in your shoulders and neck, you can get some much-needed relief by following the advice above.