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How to relieve anxiety tension in your neck and shoulders: 5 ways

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Long-term stress and anxiety can cause tension in your neck and shoulder muscles. Yoga and stretching can help relieve tension and pain in your neck and shoulders over time.  
Medically reviewed by Gregory Minnis, DPT
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on

Your body’s sympathetic nervous system regulates your “fight or flight” response. This unconscious reaction happens when faced with danger. But stress and anxiety can also put your body on alert, triggering the release of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone.

This automatic reaction can trigger muscle contractions. And as soon as the stress trigger passes, your muscles typically relax again.

However, chronic stress and anxiety can cause continual tension in your muscles. Left unmanaged, this tension can cause headaches and back problems.

Exercise, stretching, and lifestyle changes can help prevent and manage neck, shoulder, and back tension.


Image of 2 hands reaching out to massage someone's neck and shoulders.
Liliya Rodnikova/Stocksy United

Massage can help release shoulder, neck, and back muscle tension. Some people find gentle massage on specific pressure points, also known as acupressure, can help relieve anxiety symptoms.

If you’re unable to schedule an appointment to see a massage therapist, try using a foam roller or even your fingers at home to massage these tense areas of your body.

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Yoga encourages you to connect with your body and environment, slow your thoughts, and deepen your breathing.

This form of exercise can help reduce the effects of stress and anxiety on the body by lowering cortisol levels and relaxing tense muscles.

One 2019 study involving participants with chronic pain receiving opioid agonist treatment. Researchers found that those who did yoga more than once a week saw significant reductions in chronic pain and anxiety symptoms.

Anxiety medication

Lifestyle changes are not a replacement for medical treatment. If you have severe anxiety symptoms in addition to muscle tension, talking with a mental health professional may be helpful.

Additionally, some people may find it beneficial to combine therapy with medication.

Types of medications a doctor may recommend include:

You should not combine SSRIs and SNRIs, as this can lead to serotonin syndrome, a life threatening condition where too much serotonin builds up in your brain.

If you need help covering the cost of medications, Optum Perks free Discount Card could help you save up to 80% off prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.

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Stretching and moving the areas of your body that feel particularly tense and painful may help release tension and ease pain.

Examples of movements that stretch the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and back include:

  • Neck stretch: This stretch involves gently pulling the head to the right and left to stretch the sides of the neck.
  • Head roll: This movement involves gently rolling the head in a circular motion to stretch the neck.
  • Child’s pose: This stretch involves getting on all fours, extending the arms, and sitting back on the heels to lengthen the spine and stretch the upper body.

If you have an injury or experience pain when stretching or performing exercises, speak with a healthcare professional before continuing your movement routine.

Cold water showers

If you’re experiencing anxiety-related muscle tension. Try swapping your warm morning shower for a cold one.

One small 2021 study found that athletes who were exposed to cold water for 15 minutes saw reductions in cortisol levels. They also experienced significant reductions in muscle aches, anxiety, and stress.

It’s important to note that the evidence on cold water immersion is mixed, and further research is needed to better understand its effects on the body.

When should you be concerned?

Anxiety can be difficult to manage alone.

Talk therapy can help you unpack the root causes of your anxiety and learn how to manage it.

If the tension and pain in your back, neck, or shoulders don’t improve with at-home treatments, talk therapy, or self-care techniques, it’s important that you follow up with a healthcare professional.


Chronic anxiety can cause muscle tension around your neck, back, and shoulders.

It’s possible to manage anxiety-related tension at home with the help of yoga, stretching, and cold showers.

If your anxiety symptoms are severe, consider speaking with a healthcare professional. They may recommend talk therapy or prescription medications to help you feel like yourself again.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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