Muscle tension is probably the most common and obvious physical symptom of anxiety. While people experience various degrees of muscle tension and may feel that tension in different areas of their body, there is no denying that when a person suffers from anxiety, he or she will likely have tense muscles.
What perplexes many is the connection between these tense muscles and anxiety. Questions such as - how common is it for anxiety to cause muscle tension, is it possible to have muscle tension without noticing anxious thoughts, and what can a person do to control the muscle tension often arise. These questions will be explored throughout the article.
Stress, Pain, and Tension
Life itself causes tension. Even those without any noticeable anxiety symptoms tend to experience muscle tension once in a while. Tension is natural, and occurs when a person has any sort of emotional or physical stress.
But those with anxiety tend to experience greater levels of muscle tension, and often find it harder to manage or decrease that tension. In addition, many people with anxiety worry about the pain associated with muscle tension and have trouble feeling anything other than the discomfort of their muscle tension.
How Anxiety Causes Tension
While the focus is on anxiety, it may be better to focus on the stress that anxiety causes. Nearly every negative consequence of anxiety comes from the stress that anxiety creates.
Muscle tension is one of those difficult consequences resulting from stress. When a person’s fight or flight system is activated (which occurs during times of stress and anxiety) muscles naturally contract. This muscle contraction is advantageous when the body and brain signal a person is in danger.
But when a person is stressed for an extended period of time (whether in physical danger or not), the muscles are also contracted for that period of time. Eventually, this tension contributes to pain, discomfort, and trouble with mobility.
In some cases, one’s response to the muscle tension may also cause further aches and pains. For example, bending over because of a backache may lead to aches in other parts of the back, or avoiding exercise because of leg pain and tension could lead to further stress on the muscles. Having physical muscle pain can be a vicious cycle, as certain movements or lack thereof can cause additional pain.
How Does Muscle Tension Feel?
Most muscle tension is experienced as a dull ache. But tension can also cause sharp pains, shooting pains, long lasting pains, and rapid pains. Any discomfort associated with the muscles could be muscle tension. If you’re not sure, talk to your doctor.
The Added Anxiety of Pain
Another problem can arise for those with anxiety and muscle pain if they are hyper-aware of the way their body feels. Those with panic disorder, hypochondria, and other anxiety disorders become "hypersensitive" (or overly aware) as to the way their body feels. They tend to notice everything - every ache, every pain, every itch, and every change. It may also feel unavoidable, as this awareness can be an inherent part of certain anxiety disorders.
Muscle tension, whether initially caused by anxiety or not, can become worse if the person with the muscle tension experiences any anxiety. The worse the anxiety, the worse the muscle tension and pain can become, and often, the pain adds to the anxiety, which in turn can add to the pain and become an uncomfortable and difficult cycle to break.
How to Relieve Muscle Tension From Anxiety
Muscle tension stemming from anxiety is not unlike muscle tension caused by other issues (such as exercise or sleeping in an awkward position). While anxiety itself will need to be addressed in order to prevent future muscle tension issues, once the muscles have already become tense, there are things a person can do to help the muscles relax and gain some relief from the tension. For example:
- Hot shower - A hot shower or bath is a great tool for reducing muscle tension. Warm water is very soothing to tense muscles, and can often provide a sense of instant relief of muscle tension. A hot bath is ideal, but since many people do not have the time and/or desire to sit in a bath for an extended period of time, a shower can still work well.
- Massage - Getting a massage can be a fantastic approach to releasing muscle tension. Muscle tension is a physical change, and those skilled at massage can actually feel the knots (which cause the tension and discomfort) in a person’s muscles, and push them out, resulting in decreased discomfort. There are also self-massage techniques, but they can be somewhat complicated.
- Stretching and yoga - Stretching and yoga can improve how a person’s muscles feel as well. While not a perfect technique, stretching is the act of elongating the muscles so they are not bunched together. The same exercises that make it easier to exercise without injury are useful for muscle tension.
- OTC painkillers - Several over-the-counter medications could prove useful for combating muscle tension. While not ideal, since medications should never be used unless absolutely necessary, over-the-counter medicines can help control inflammation in a person’s muscles and ultimately reduce some of the pain. For those with other medical conditions, it may be important to check with a doctor prior to using OTC medications.
Depending on the type and severity of the muscle tension, trying each of these strategies could prove helpful in relieving muscle tension. Even though the tension is caused by anxiety, which is a mental effect, the physical body is affected, including the muscles. And while there are various approaches to soothing some of that muscle tension, it is also important to address the underlying cause, and learn to manage and control the stress and anxiety.
Stress causes the muscles to contract, and the tension that that causes on muscles can make them feel stiff, achy, and painful. That same tension can also cause behavioral changes that also contribute to aching muscles. Certain exercises can reduce the tension, while addressing anxiety keeps it away.