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How Emotional Stress = Neck + Upper Back Pain


Emotional stress affects both our minds and our bodies. When we’re stressed out we might become more irritable, tired, angry or impatient. Over time, repetitive bouts of stress can cause musculoskeletal issues in the body. Let’s investigate how and why this happens.


1. The Stress Hormone Response


There are 3 different types of stress that humans face. Acute stress is in-the-moment and is short in duration. It’s often called our “fight or flight” reaction. Adrenaline is released from your adrenal glands located at the top of your kidneys. This is to help you immediately in a dangerous situation, say if a tiger is bounding right at you.


As I say in our bestselling Mindfulness 101 presentation, the problem is, there are no actual tigers running at us in our modern day American office life. Instead we take a snarky email, or a perceived insult as a life-or-death situation and our adrenal glands start spitting out adrenaline into our body.


Chronic stress occurs over a long period of time. When you’re stressed out for days, weeks, months or longer your body is constantly metabolizing stress hormones. The third type of stress is traumatic stress and may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD


With all three types of stress, our body produces and releases the glucocorticoid hormone cortisol. Like adrenaline, cortisol is released from the adrenal glands. Cortisol regulates your body’s stress response and controls the use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates to support the fight/flight response. It also suppresses inflammation, regulates blood pressure and blood sugar, and helps control your sleep cycle.


2. Breath


Stress can change your breathing pattern. When we are feeling stressed or anxious our breathing becomes irregular, short and fast. Conversely, when we are in a relaxed state our breathing is slow, steady and deep. The diaphragm is the muscle that controls the breath. This muscle can get tight and tense during episodes of fast breathing or hyperventilation. This change in breathing pattern can cause strain and tension in the mid- and upper-back. Your shoulders hunch up and chest muscles tighten. Additionally, cortisol levels rise which sends signals to your body that you are stressed.


We can trick our body into thinking that it is calm by slowing down our breathing rate. Deep belly breathing has been shown to lower stress levels. Learning to control the breath allows you to gain some control over the seemingly uncontrollable stress response in your body. Breath either excites or relaxes the nervous system. Inhales tend to be energizing and exhales tend to be calming. Therefore we can induce calm through breathing exercises that emphasize the exhale, especially a long, slow, controlled exhale.


3. Headaches


Stress induced headaches can cause tension in the neck. Chronic neck pain also can cause fatigue, depression, and irritability. During a headache you might notice that you tend to squint your eyes or clench your jab. What starts as pain in the head has now migrated down your face and into your jaw and neck.


I've talked about my stress story here and in many of our Unfold Digital classes. When stress is the root cause of the headache, no amount of drugs can stave it off. What I learned is that you either deal with the migraine or you deal with the stress. The latter is much easier, safer and leads to long lasting health benefits. There are many ways to lower your stress, it's up to you to investigate and find out what works for you. For me, meditation and mindfulness have been the key to stopping migraines before they even start. That's part of why I do what I do!


4. Posture


We hold ourselves differently when we are stressed. Our body curls forward, as if to turn into itself. Shoulders hunch, muscles tighten, tailbone tucks. This is our body being on “high alert” in case a fight/flight reaction is needed at a moment’s notice. We rarely act out on this reaction, so the energy is not released and stays within us, circulating.


I recently gave a lecture on Burnout to a group of lawyers. An attendee came up to me afterwards and said he is more stressed now than he was as a combat soldier in the army. I was fascinated, though not entirely stunned. He explained that in combat you are no-doubt stressed, but your body is in action and therefore lets out the build up energy produced by the body’s stress response. As a lawyer, there are many stresses of the job, but they are rarely physically acted upon. The lack of release leads to the tensed up body and poor posture.


Having poor posture every once in a while isn't such a bad thing. But chronically holding yourself in the hunched up position can cause discomfort or pain especially in your neck, shoulders and upper back. When the body gets used to being in a tight, stiff state, it becomes harder to fully relax and soften. Re-training the muscles to relax and lengthen can take time and effort on your part. The video below is a great first step towards unwinding built up tension in the neck and shoulders due to stress-induced poor posture.



So, what can be done?


Pause. Observe. Try to take notice of the times you feel your stress coming on. It might be evident by an increased heart rate, a mental thought or a pain in your head or neck. Then, close your eyes and do a body scan. Try to pinpoint where in your body you are feeling discomfort, tension or pain. Then, once you have identified where stress physically manifests in your body you can treat those areas with gentle movement, stretching, self-massage and breathing techniques. Don't worry, you don't have to do it alone! We are here to help you out.


In our latest 10-Minute Tune-Up I guide you through a quick movement and meditation class to address tension in your neck, upper back, and shoulder blade areas. Using techniques such as self-massage, stretching, breathing and observing, you can slowly pick away at built up stress in your body.




If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to our newsletter to receive weekly 10-Minute Tune-Ups and wellbeing inspiration. These classes are quick office-friendly chair yoga and meditation breaks to get you moving, breathing, and de-stressed - no change of clothing or equipment needed. Happy moving!


In Gratitude,

Nicole Elipas Doherty

Co-Founder + CEO


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