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Muscle Tension, Persistent Tight Muscles, Aches, Pain Anxiety Symptoms

Marilyn Folk BScN medical reviewer
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: April 3, 2019

Muscle Tension, Persistent Tight Muscles, Aches, Pain Anxiety Symptoms description:

Anxiety muscle tension symptoms may appear for a few brief moments then disappear, may last for minutes or hours before they relax, or may be stiff/tense or painful indefinitely.

Anxiety muscle tension symptoms also may persist when trying to relax, go to sleep, when asleep, or resume when waking up.

The degree and intensity of anxiety muscle tension symptoms can vary from person to person. For example, one or a group of muscles may be only slightly uncomfortable for one person, but may be intensely painful and severely restricting for another.

Anxiety muscle tension symptoms can affect ANY muscle or group of muscles in the body, and may randomly migrate to various muscles or groups of muscle throughout the entire body. Many of those who experience stress and anxiety comment about tight, sore, and painful muscles and/or muscle tension problems in the head and face, mouth, back of the head and neck, back and top of the shoulders, chest, arms, back, legs, hands, stomach, digestive system, elimination tract, groin, and feet, as well as others.

Anxiety muscle tension, aches, and pains can persistently affect one area only, can shift and affect another area or areas, and can migrate all over and affect many areas over and over again.

Anxiety muscle tension, aches, and pains can come and go rarely, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely. For example, you may feel muscle tension once in a while and not that often, feel it off and on, or feel it all the time.

Anxiety muscle tension, aches, and pains may precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.

Anxiety muscle tension, aches, and pains can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and elevated stress, or occur ‘out of the blue’ and for no apparent reason.

Anxiety muscle tension, aches, and pains can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves, where it’s strong one moment and eases off the next.

Anxiety muscle tension, aches, and pains can change from day to day, and/or from moment to moment.

All of the above combinations and variations are common.

Some people experience great immobility due to anxiety muscle tension symptoms and/or pain. Some people also find the tension and/or pain so restricting and debilitating that it prevents physical activity, and sometimes to the point of becoming bed ridden.

NOTE: It’s common to experience muscle tension symptoms without pain, and vice versa. So if you are experiencing muscle tension without pain, or pain without muscle tension, this is also common and not unusual.

Why can anxiety cause muscle tension, stiffness, and pain symptoms?

Being stressed and/or anxious (worried, apprehensive, fretful, fearful) causes the body to produce the stress response, which secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat—to either fight with or flee from it—which is the reason this response is often referred to as the fight or flight response.

One of the physiological changes the stress response brings about is that it causes the muscles in the body to contract (tighten). Tight muscles make the body more resilient to attack when in dangerous situations.

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about. This can make muscle tension temporary and not seem problematic.

When stress responses occur too dramatically and/or frequently, however, the body can remain in a state of emergency readiness and/or become stress-response hyperstimulated, since stress hormones are stimulants. Hyperstimulation can cause muscles to remain tense and tight. Headaches, muscle pain, muscle tension, tight muscles, and stiffness are all common symptoms of stress-response hyperstimulation.

As long as the body’s stress remains elevated, one, or a group of muscles, can remain tight causing anxiety related muscle tension symptoms.

Moreover, recent research has found that psychological stress can negatively affect pain modulation (the body’s ability to regulate pain). This can also be a cause for stronger than normal muscle pain.

How to get rid of anxiety muscle tension, stiffness, aches, and pains symptoms?

Medical Advisory
Because there are many medical conditions that can cause anxiety and anxiety-like sensations and symptoms, including this one, we recommend that all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms be discussed with your doctor. If your doctor concludes that your sensations and symptoms are solely stress related (including anxiety-caused stress), you can be confident that there isn't another medical reason for them. Generally, most doctors can easily tell the difference between stress- and anxiety-caused sensations and symptoms from those caused by other medical conditions.

If you are uncertain about your doctor’s diagnosis, however, you may want to seek a second and even third opinion. But if all three opinions concur, you can be assured that stress (including the stress that being overly anxious can cause) is the cause of your sensations and symptoms and not some other medical or biological problem.

When muscle tension symptoms are caused by apprehensive behavior and the accompanying stress response changes, calming yourself down will bring an end to the stress response and its changes. As your body recovers from the active stress response, this feeling should subside and you should return to your normal self. Keep in mind that it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

When muscle tension symptoms are caused by persistent stress, it may take a lot more time for the body to recover and to the point where muscle tension symptoms are eliminated.

Nevertheless, when the body has fully recovered an from active stress response and/or stress-response hyperstimulation, muscle tension symptoms completely subside. Therefore, muscle tension symptoms needn’t be a cause for concern. Yes, they can be disconcerting, painful, and restricting, but they aren’t harmful in and of themselves. They are simply indications of a body that has become overly stressed.

You can speed up the recovery process by reducing your stress, practicing relaxed breathing, working at calming your body down, increasing your rest and relaxation, and not worrying about this symptom. Again, when your body has recovered from the stress response and/or sustained stress, muscle tension symptoms completely disappear.

For lasting relief from anxiety related muscle tension symptoms, it’s best to address the underlying factors of your anxiety so that your body CAN reduce stress and fully recover (continued stress responses triggered by unidentified and unresolved anxiety underlying factors can prevent recovery). Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to successfully address anxiety’s underlying factors.

Short-term muscle tension remedies

Even though anxiety caused muscle tension is due to the persistently elevated stress of behaving apprehensively, there are some short-term remedies that might help to alleviate persistently tense muscles, such as:

Massage – having a massage, which is relaxing, can alleviate muscle tension.

Deep relaxation – practicing a deep relaxation technique can relax the body and muscle tension.

Gentle stretching – gently stretching the muscles can help release their tension. Rigorous stretching isn’t recommended because overly stretched muscles will contract afterward, which can aggravate tense muscles.

Warm (not hot) bath – a warm bath can be relaxing and loosen tight muscles. We don’t recommend a hot bath as hot temperatures can increase the body’s metabolism, which can aggravate other anxiety symptoms.

Light to moderate exercise – light to moderate exercise is a known stress and muscle tension reducer. We recommend avoiding rigorous exercise when the body is already overly stressed, as rigorous exercise stresses the body, which can aggravate anxiety symptoms rather than alleviating them.

Go for a leisurely walk in the country – research has shown that leisure walks are a good way to reduce stress, and being in the country has also shown to reduce stress.

Get good sleep – keeping the body well rested is a great way to alleviate and prevent tight muscles.

For a more detailed explanation about anxiety symptoms including anxiety caused muscle tension, why symptoms can persist long after the stress response has ended, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.

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Additional Resources:

Return to our anxiety symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and coaching/counseling/therapy for problematic anxiety and its sensations and symptoms, including anxiety muscle tension, stiffness, aches, and pains symptoms.