“All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced debilitating anxiety. But we’ve also overcome it and returned to normal and lasting health. Because we know the hardship anxiety unwellness can cause, we are committed to helping others, with over 30 years of service.” - Jim Folk, President, anxietycentre.com

Muscle Tension, Chronic Muscle Tension, Aches, Pain Anxiety Symptoms

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: October 2, 2019


muscle tension, pain, soreness, stiffness anxiety symptom image

Muscle tension, including chronic muscle tension, muscle tightness, muscle tenderness, and muscle pain are often symptoms of anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and others.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your anxiety symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test or Anxiety Disorder Test. The higher the rating, the more likely it could be contributing to your anxiety symptoms, including muscle symptoms.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and muscle tension and pain.

Muscle Tension, Chronic Muscle Tension, Aches, Pain common anxiety symptoms descriptions:

  • You feel like your muscles are always tight or strained, sometimes to the point of frequent pain or even chronic pain.
  • Some people might also find the pain so restricting and debilitating that it prevents physical activity, and sometimes to the point of becoming bed ridden.
  • It's also common to experience pain or cramps in any of the body's muscles.
  • This symptom can also be experienced as muscle spasms, twitching, “clamping up,” and intermittent pain.
  • Sometimes the muscle tension pain can be so severe that pain medications are required.

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

Anxiety muscle tension symptoms can also 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 can be only slightly uncomfortable for one person but can be intensely painful and severely restricting for another.

Anxiety muscle tension symptoms can affect ANY muscle or group of muscles in the body, and can 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 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-caused 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 can have muscle tension once in a while and not that often, have it off and on, or have it all the time.

Anxiety muscle tension, aches, and pains can 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.

This anxiety symptom 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 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 pain. Some people also find the tension 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. 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?

Medical Advisory

We recommend all new, changing, persistent, and returning anxiety symptoms be discussed with your doctor as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms, including this anxiety symptom. If your doctor concludes your symptoms are solely anxiety-related, you can be confident there isn't a medical cause. Generally, doctors can easily determine the difference between anxiety symptoms and those caused by a medical condition.

Doctors aren't infallible, however. If you are uncertain about your doctor’s diagnosis, you can seek a second or more opinions. But if all opinions agree, you can be assured anxiety is the cause of this symptom.

1. The stress response

When muscle tension is caused by stress, including anxiety-caused stress, the moment we believe we could be in danger, the body secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat – to either fight or flee. This survival reaction is the reason why the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response, the emergency response, or the fight, flight, or freeze response (some people freeze when they are afraid like a “deer caught in headlights”).[1][2]

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.

Whenever you are anxious, you can experience muscle tension.

2. Hyperstimulation

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 frequently, however, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, the body can remain in a state of emergency response readiness, which we call stress-response hyperstimulation.

Hyperstimulation can cause the changes of an active stress response even though a stress response hasn’t been activated.[3][4] Chronic muscle tension is a common symptom of hyperstimulation (chronic stress). As long as the body is hyperstimulated, one, or a group of muscles, can remain tight.

Moreover, recent research has found that psychological stress can negatively affect pain modulation (the body’s ability to regulate pain).[5] Impaired pain modulation can cause an increase in normal muscle pain. You can read more about this here.

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

1. End the active stress response

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.

2. Eliminate hyperstimulation

When muscle tension symptoms are caused by hyperstimulation (chronic stress), it can take much longer for the body to recover and to the point where muscle tension symptoms are eliminated.

Nevertheless, when the body has recovered an from active stress response or hyperstimulation, muscle tension symptoms 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’s become chronically 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 or chronic stress, muscle tension symptoms subside.

3. Therapy

Unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors of anxiety is the number one reason why anxiety disorder and its symptoms persist. This is why dealing with your anxiety issues is the most important work overall if you desire lasting success.

Since the majority of stress comes from behavior (the ways we think and act), addressing the core reasons for anxiety disorder can reduce and eliminate the unhealthy stress that often leads to hyperstimulation and symptoms, including this muscle tension and pain.

Keep in mind that eliminating anxiety symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve overcome issues with anxiety. Anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress. Eliminating anxiety symptoms means you’ve eliminated the unhealthy stress that is causing your symptoms. But if the underlying factors that cause issues with anxiety aren’t addressed, it’s just a matter of time until the body is overly stressed and symptomatic again.

Rebounds of symptoms and a return to a struggle with anxiety are often caused for this very reason: the core issues that cause problematic anxiety haven’t been successfully addressed.

To eliminate issues with anxiety and symptoms once and for all, we need to eliminate the cause of problematic anxiety – the underlying factors that cause issues with anxiety. When you eliminate the cause of the problem, you eliminate the problem and the problem's symptoms.

If you have been struggling with anxiety and symptoms, we recommend connecting with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist to help you overcome your anxiety issues. Research has shown that working with an experienced therapist is an effective treatment for anxiety disorder.[6][7]

All of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists have personally experienced anxiety disorder and have overcome it. Their personal experience with anxiety disorder combined with their Masters Degree and above professional training makes them a good choice when desiring to overcome anxiety disorder and its symptoms.

Moreover, getting therapy via teletherapy, distanced therapy, or e-therapy (telephone or online therapy) is as effective, if not more so, than in-person therapy.[8][9]

All of our recommended therapists are experienced at working with clients via distanced therapy and new technologies. We’ve found distanced therapy to be especially effective when working with anxious clients.[10]

Research has also shown that self-help information can also be beneficial.[11][12] For a more detailed explanation about anxiety symptoms including this one, 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.

4. Short-term muscle tension remedies

Even though anxiety caused muscle tension is due to the chronic stress caused by overly apprehensive behavior, there are some short-term remedies that might help to alleviate anxiety caused muscle tension and pain, such as:

Massage – having a relaxing massage can alleviate muscle tension.

Deep relaxation – regular deep relaxation is particularly effective at reducing muscle tension.

Gentle stretching – gently stretching the muscles can help release their tension. Rigorous stretching isn’t recommended because overly stretched muscles can 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 anxiety and its 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 chronically stressed, as rigorous exercise stresses the body, which can aggravate anxiety symptoms.

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.


Additional Resources:


Return to Anxiety Disorders Signs and Symptoms section.

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.


REFERENCES:

1. Selye H. Endocrine reactions during stress. Anesthesia & Analgesia. 1956;35:182–193. [PubMed]

2. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.

3. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015.

4. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, 2017.

5. Geva, N, et al. “Acute Psychosocial Stress Reduces Pain Modulation Capabilities in Healthy Men.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2014.

6. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012.

7. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017.

8. Thompson, Ryan Baird, "Psychology at a Distance: Examining the Efficacy of Online Therapy" (2016). University Honors Theses. Paper 285.

9. Kingston, Dawn.“Advantages of E-Therapy Over Conventional Therapy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 11 Dec. 2017.

10. DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.

11. C., Lewis, et al. "Efficacy, cost-effectiveness and acceptability of self-help interventions for anxiety disorders: systematic review." British Journal of Psychiatry, Jan. 2012.

12. Kumar, Shefali, et al. "Mobile and traditional cognitive behavioral therapy programs for generalized anxiety disorder: A cost-effectiveness analysis." Journal PLOS, 4 Jan. 2018.