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Neck, Back, Shoulder Tension, Stiffness, and Pain Anxiety Symptoms

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: February 9, 2021

head neck shoulder tension anxiety symptoms

Head, neck, and shoulder tension 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 head, neck, or shoulder stiffness and tension.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and head, neck, and shoulder tension and soreness.

Neck, back, and shoulder tension, stiffness, and pain anxiety symptoms descriptions:

  • The neck, back, shoulders, or back or top of the head may feel tense, tight, stiff, or sore.
  • It might also feel as though you have a tight band around your head.
  • Others describe it as a head, neck, back, shoulders, or back or top of the head pressure, tension, stiffness, or soreness.
  • It also may feel as though the top of your head is heavy or tight, or that there is pressure inside your head.
  • Many people who experience this symptom try to "crack" their necks or roll their necks in hopes that it will release the tension, stiffness, and soreness.

Neck, back, shoulder tension can persistently affect one area only, such as the head only, the back only, or the shoulders only. Neck, back, shoulder tension can also shift and affect another area or areas, such as the neck and back, the back and shoulders, or the neck and shoulders only. Or, neck, back, and shoulder tension can migrate all over and affect many areas over and over again, and all areas over and over again.

Neck, back, shoulder tension anxiety symptoms can come and go sporadically, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely. For example, you may have neck tension once in a while and not that often, have neck tension more regularly, or have it all the time.

Neck, back, shoulder tension anxiety symptoms may precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur all by itself.

Neck, back, shoulder tension 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.

Neck, back, shoulder tension 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.

Neck, back, shoulder tension can change from day to day, and/or from moment to moment.

All of the above combinations and variations are common.

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What causes the neck, back, shoulder tension anxiety symptoms?

Medical Advisory

Behaving apprehensively causes the body to activate the stress response, which causes the body to secrete 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 the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response[1][2].

Because of the many changes the stress response brings about, behaving apprehensively stresses the body.

Part of these changes include tightening the body’s muscles so that they are more resilient to damage. This can include the muscles in the neck, back, and shoulders.

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes. When stress responses occur too frequently and/or dramatically, however, the body has a more difficult time recovering. This can result in the body remaining in a semi emergency readiness state, which we call stress-response hyperstimulation since stress hormones are stimulants. A body that becomes stress-response hyperstimulated can exhibit similar sensations and symptoms to that of an active stress response.[3][4] Persistent neck, back, and shoulder tension is an example of how the body can respond when chronically stressed.

How to get rid of neck, back, shoulder tension anxiety symptoms?

When neck, back, shoulder tension is 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 tension should subside and your neck, back, and shoulder tension should subside. 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 neck, back, shoulder tension is caused by persistent stress, such as from stress-response hyperstimulation, it may take a lot more time for the body to calm down and recover, and to the point where neck, back, shoulder tension subsides.

Nevertheless, when the body has fully recovered from the stress of being anxious, this anxiety symptom will completely disappear. Therefore, neck, back, shoulder tension anxiety symptoms needn’t be a cause for concern.

You can speed up the recovery process by reducing your stress, practicing relaxed breathing, increasing your rest and relaxation, and not worrying about this feeling. Sure, neck, back, shoulder tension can be bothersome, but again, when your body has recovered from the stress response and/or sustained stress, this symptom will completely disappear.

If you are having difficulty containing your worry, you may want to connect with one of our anxiety disorder therapists, coaches, or counselors. Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome what seems like unmanageable worry.

For a more detailed explanation about anxiety symptoms, 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.

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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 the headaches, sore scalp, tight neck, and head tension symptoms.


1. Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.

2. Folk, Jim and Folk, Marilyn. “The Stress Response And Anxiety Symptoms.” anxietycentre.com, August 2019.

3. Hannibal, Kara E., and Mark D. Bishop. “Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2014.

4. Justice, Nicholas J., et al. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder-Like Induction Elevates β-Amyloid Levels, Which Directly Activates Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Neurons to Exacerbate Stress Responses.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 11 Feb. 2015.