At its worst, anxiety makes me wish I could temporarily remove my head from my body. Obviously, that would help stop the neurotic thoughts from trickling down to the rest of my stressed muscles. But it would also relieve my poor neck and shoulders, which always seem to take on a disproportionate amount of my anxious tension.
This isn’t just a “me” problem either. Throughout her 30-year career as a physical therapist, Stephanie Carter Kelley has found “that unmanaged stress and anxiety are the main reasons for neck pain,” she tells me. It’s partly why she started incorporating yoga into her treatment a few years ago. “Everyone I know reaches up to the side of their neck and says that’s where they feel tension.”
Physiologically speaking, this checks out, as your upper trapezius muscles, your neck and your shoulders, are “first responders” to stress, Kelley says. Essentially, when the nervous system detects a threat, which could be anything from a fight with a significant other to a ding notification on your phone, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear, triggering the body’s “stress response” — i.e., your heart rate increases, your digestion decreases and your muscles tighten. Most of us have heard of fight-or-flight, but Kelley thinks of it more as a “punch-or-run” response that starts in the neck and shoulders.
The way your breathing changes when you’re stressed doesn’t help your upper traps either. Per physical therapist Steve Miller, when breathing properly, your diaphragm should be doing most of the work, because it’s the major muscle in charge of respiration. Other muscles, in contrast, aren’t needed and can relax — except for when you’re stressed and your fight-or-flight response kicks in. “Instead of breathing with your diaphragm, you end up using accessory breathing muscles, which are the muscles in your neck, shoulders and upper chest,” Miller explains. “Since these muscles are overworking by performing a primary job instead of a secondary one, the muscles become tight and tense.”
In such instances, pain is a message to the body from the brain telling it to stop using these muscles the wrong way. For this reason, Miller recommends lying on your back when you’re stressed, which will instantly improve your breathing by aligning your spine. (Poor posture has been linked with breathing problems.)
From there, place your hand on your stomach and breathe in through your nose while making your stomach rise to ensure you’re using your diaphragm, as opposed to your rib cage and shoulders rising, indicating shallow breathing. Next, breathe out slowly, watching your belly and hand go down, and repeat a few times before trying the same thing sitting, then standing, and finally, when getting back to your day. “If you practice this every day, especially when you’re stressed or anxious, you’ll train your body to get back to breathing this way, even when you’re stressed,” Miller says.
Kelley, on the other hand, offers a process that’s slightly easier to execute in an office environment, which she calls “PEACE Out of Pain.” Or rather an acronym that goes like this…
Practice Awareness: “Mediation, guided breathing and gentle exercises help you bring awareness to what your stress triggers are,” she says. “With this awareness, you can learn to manage the stress and anxiety before it escalates into pain all day.”
Educate: The best way to manage pain is to learn more about the mind-body connection, and track what thoughts are going through your mind when you’re hurting — in a journal for instance. If you’ve had this pain for a while, “the body compensates and may now have imbalance in the muscles,” which could result in weakness, tightness and pain. “The practice of awareness will educate you about the way you think about yourself and others,” Kelley explains. “Sometimes these thought patterns are just as harmful and triggering as posture or neck weakness.”
Align: Kelley agrees with Miller that a large part of stress and pain management starts with proper posture and alignment. She means this literally, through the practice of stretching more and consciously sitting up straight, but also suggests getting “aligned with your purpose in life” for further stress reduction. “Do the activities that you do each day satisfy your deeper sense of purpose?” Kelley asks. “If not, no matter how much you tuck your chin, you will experience tension.”
Create: Develop a plan to improve your physical and emotional health, which can include exercise, yoga, journaling, meditation, therapy, reconnecting with friends and family and many other forms of self-care. “That’s really the only way out of this type of pain,” Kelley stresses.
Empower: Getting neck pain under control can bring a strong sense of accomplishment and encourage you to stick with a plan to continue managing it. Even if the plan is as small as stretching every morning and being more aware of your breathing, it can prove empowering — those early gains in particular, Kelley says.
Maybe I’ll be empowered enough to stop thinking about ripping my head from my neck the next time I’m stressed. That, far more my head, would take a lot of weight off of my shoulders.