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 on different areas of their body, there is no denying that when you have anxiety, your muscles are tense.
But what causes these tense muscles, how common are they, is it possible to have muscle tension without anxious thoughts, and what can you do to control it? We explore all of these questions in this article.
Is Your Muscle Tension Anxiety?
Muscle tension is one of the most common symptoms of stress. Take our free 7 minute anxiety test to see how severe your anxiety and muscle tension are, compare it to others, and learn strategies to decrease it.
Stress, Pain, and Tension
Life itself causes tension. Even those without any noticeable anxiety experience muscle tension once in a while. Tension is natural, and occurs when you have anything causing you emotional or physical stress of any kind.
But those with anxiety find it harder for that tension to go away naturally. In addition, many people with anxiety worry about the pain, and have trouble feeling anything other than the discomfort of their muscle tension. That's why if you want to get rid of anxiety and that tension forever, my free 7 minute anxiety test is the best place to start.
How Anxiety Causes Tension
While the focus is on anxiety, it may be better to focus on stress. Nearly every negative consequence of anxiety comes from the stress that anxiety causes. Muscle tension is also a result of stress. When your fight or flight system is activated - which occurs during times of stress and anxiety - your muscles contract.
The contraction is supposed to be to your advantage when faced with a fearful situation. But when you're stressed for an extensive period of time, your muscles never leave the contraction phase. Eventually, this tension causes pain, discomfort, and trouble with mobility.
In some cases, your response to that tension may also cause further aches and pains. For example, bending over because you have back aches may lead to aches in other parts of your back, or avoiding exercise because your legs are tense may lead to further muscle stress. All of these contribute to the feeling of physical pain in your muscles.
Most muscle tension causes a duller ache. But tension may also cause sharp pains, shooting pains, long lasting pains, and rapid pains.
The Added Anxiety of Pain
Another problem occurs to those that become sensitive to the way their body feels. Those with panic disorder, hypochondria, and other anxiety disorders, become "hypersensitive" (over-sensitive) to the way their body feels. They notice everything - every ache, every pain, every itch, and every change. They can't help it, since it's a part of the anxiety disorder.
For those with muscle tension - even muscle tension that is _not_ caused by anxiety - panic disorder and related anxiety make the pain worse. Every bit of discomfort is noticed, and the tension is amplified the more anxiety you experience.
Often the pain adds to the anxiety, which in turn can add to the pain.
How to Relieve Muscle Tension From Anxiety
Muscle tension from anxiety is not unlike muscle tension from other issues, such as exercise or sleeping on the wrong side of your body. While anxiety itself will need to be addressed in order to prevent future muscle tension issues, once the muscles are tense, they can be relaxed using any method of relieving physical tension available. 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 give you a little bit of instant relief for your muscle tension. A hot bath is ideal, but since most people don't have the time and energy to sit in a bath for an extended period of time, a shower should still work well.
- Massage A massage is also a fantastic tool for releasing tension. Muscles tension is a physical change, and those skilled at massage can actually feel the knots and tension in your muscles and push them out so that your muscles feel relaxed. There are also self-massage techniques, but they can be somewhat complicated.
- Stretching and Yoga Stretching and yoga poses can improve how your muscles feel as well. While not a perfect technique, "stretching" is the act of making sure that your muscles aren't 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 may also be useful for combatting muscle tension. While not ideal, since medications should never be used unless you need to use them, over the counter medicines can help control inflammation in your muscles and ultimately reduce some of the pain.
Each of these strategies - and any useful muscle relaxing techniques that you can do at home - are effective at relieving tension. Even though the tension is caused by anxiety, your muscles do physically change when you're stressed, and by reducing the effects of tension you can control some of the pain.
But of course, unless you control your anxiety and stress your muscles will tense up again. While exercise, stretching, and massage will continue to relieve the tension, you need to stop your anxiety if you want to prevent muscle tension from coming back again.
To do that, you need examine your symptoms and find out which treatments are best to control it. Take my anxiety test to find out what treatments are best for you.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.