Why You May Be Carrying Stress in Your Shoulders and Neck

person sitting at their desk with neck pain stressed out

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Neck and shoulder pain is quite common in the general population, especially among people who experience high levels of stress. It’s no wonder that expressions like “carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders” came to be, or that people tend to describe challenging situations or difficult people as “pain in the necks.” Many of us carry our stress directly in our necks and shoulders, which can lead to muscle tension, pain, and headaches.

Let’s take a look at how stress contributes to neck and shoulder pain, what symptoms feel like, and what you can do to get some much-needed relief.

Why Does Stress Lead to Neck and Shoulder Pain?

To understand how stress is linked to neck and shoulder pain, it can be helpful to consider something called “the stress response.”

The Stress Response Leads to Physical Symptoms

In essence, our neurological and hormonal systems are activated when we experience stress in life—whether work stress, relationship stress, money stress, stress about the state of the world, or other common contributors. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol is released, causing a cascade of physical symptoms.

Potential Physical Symptoms

Everyone experiences physical manifestations of stress differently, but stress can affect almost all of our bodily systems. For example, the stress reaction can cause:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Tense and labored breathing
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Trembling

Why You Experience Neck and Shoulder Pain

Stress also strongly impacts the muscular system, causing muscles to tighten and contract. The neck and shoulders are one of the most common areas where muscles tighten due to stress. The higher your stress levels and the longer you remain in a high-stress state, the more neck and shoulder tension you may experience.

Symptoms of Shoulder and Neck Stress

Stress manifesting in your neck and shoulder can cause a number of uncomfortable and disruptive symptoms. Again, each person will experience these symptoms in unique ways, but some of the possible symptoms include:

  • An achy, tense feeling in the neck and/or shoulders
  • A stiff neck
  • Discomfort when the neck and shoulders are touched or when you turn your head
  • A feeling of tightening in your neck or shoulders
  • Jaw clenching or tension is also possible, as is back pain

Tension in the neck and shoulders can also contribute to headache symptoms. People with stress that goes to their neck and shoulders are prone to tension headaches and migraines.

Tips for Relieving Shoulder and Neck Stress

When you are experiencing neck and shoulder pain and tension related to stress, managing your stress is one of the most powerful ways to decrease your symptoms. Thankfully, there are many effective ways to address stress in life. Let’s look at a few.

Physical Exercise

Physical exercise of any kind is known to reduce stress. People who exercise regularly may have lower heart rates than sedentary individuals and often have more balanced, stable moods. Just 30 minutes a day of any type of movement that you enjoy can make a difference. Studies have shown that yoga specifically can decrease stress levels.

As an added bonus, many yoga poses allow you to stretch your neck and shoulder muscles to release tension.


Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help you learn to recognize stressful thoughts so that you can let them go and not let them dominate your life. This, in turn, can reduce stress in your body, and reduce stress-related symptoms like neck and shoulder pain.

Research backs up the power of meditation on stress relief. For example, a 2021-study found that people who participated in a 6-week mindfulness program experienced decreased levels of perceived stress, as well as increased engagement at work.

Getting Enough Sleep

You are probably aware that getting enough sleep increases your energy levels and ability to concentrate. You are also probably cognizant of the fact that increased stress levels can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. But what you may not know is that lack of sleep in and of itself can contribute to elevated levels of stress.

So, simply making it a strong habit to go to sleep on time can blunt some of the stress in your life.


Therapy can help you deal with serious mental health conditions and help you work through traumas. But it can also help you better manage the common life stresses that all of us experience.

Most of the therapy types that help you manage stress work by making you become more mindful of your thoughts and how they affect your feelings and physical reactions to stress. Therapy types known to combat stress include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

When You Need Immediate Relief

As you wait for your stress levels to decrease, you might be looking for more immediate pain relief. Besides managing your stress levels, you can speak to your healthcare provider for medication options for relieving neck and shoulder pain. You can also consider using hot or cold packs to provide relief. Gentle neck stretching can also be helpful. But for some people, resting the neck and shoulders and decreasing physical activity for a few days works best.

When to Call Your Doctor

It’s important to distinguish between neck and shoulder pain or tension related to stress and symptoms that may be signs of a serious medical condition.

Symptoms may include:

  • A stiff neck and headache accompanied by a fever, which could be a sign of meningitis
  • Neck or shoulder pain, along with loss of bladder or bowel control, indicating possible pressure on your spinal cord
  • Signs of a physical injury, such as instability in your joints, or an unusual ability to move your head back and forth more than expected
  • Neck pain along with swollen neck glands, indicating a possible infection or tumor
  • Neck pain accompanied by chest pain or pressure, which are possible signs of a heart attack

Get Emergency Support

If you or a loved one are experiencing signs of a potentially life-threatening condition, please seek medical care immediately.

A Word From Verywell

Experiencing neck and shoulder pain due to stress can be extremely uncomfortable and even debilitating at times. The good news is that neck and shoulder pain due to stress responds well to basic stress management techniques such as exercise, therapy, and meditation. You’ve got this.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.