The effects of stress and anxiety on the body

Stress, stress, stress. The never ending daily grind that can feel like the weight of the world on your shoulders. With all that weight it makes sense that you may start feeling tight in your muscles! Is that just one of those sayings or is there something more to it?

The mechanisms behind how psychological stress can result in an increase in muscle tension can be a little complex but I shall do my best to explain it to you now!

The theory is that being exposed to stress over time can result in increased and sustained muscle activity. This can result in muscle overuse, injury and then pain (1). There are even studies that demonstrate that, when a person is exposed to psychosocial stress, there is an increase in activity of the muscles around the neck . This, combined with how mental concentration can increase your muscle activity (4), you can see why some of those muscles can start to get sore after having a long and hard day at work!

There tends to be a couple of ways that people come to see us when stress is getting to much:

Tension type headaches. These are headaches that come on due to tenderness of the muscles around the head and neck (5). Think of the headache that gets worse towards the end of the day after being at work. From my experience this tends to be the most common presentation of stress to us!

Jaw pain. A lot of people, whether they realise or not, clench their teeth when stressing/concentrating.

Neck related pain/discomfort. Very similar to tension type headaches, in the sense that the muscles in the neck are causing some tightness or discomfort, but they aren’t causing a headache.

When looking at a stressful environment we can approach it in a few ways. Ideally we want to alter the stress at the source. Well duh, that seems obvious but its not always practical or possible.

If we cant alter the source of stress then you can try to reduce the severity of the symptoms. Think of it like this, there is a big project that your company is working on that you’re finding really stressful. Now you cant alter the stress – as the company has taken on the project – but there are ways in which we can manage the burden of the stress. Some ways which this can happen are putting in support networks to help with the load, implementing time management strategies and goal setting exercises. We are usually are on tight time schedules so setting out what tasks you need to do can help you prioritise tasks and decide what you may need to delegate or attend to later. You may find keeping a journal of what you find stressful on a day to day basis beneficial as you will be able to monitor how your stress levels are changing (3).

If all of this still isn’t working you can consider seeing a qualified professional to help.

People respond to stress differently and therefore need to be managed differently. One thing is for sure, letting your stresses build up without addressing them is not a great way to go. For some people yoga is great, going for a walk with your partner or puppy dog and meditating are all great ways to help manage it.

At the end of the day its all about finding out what ways work for you to help manage your stress. And if your friendly neighbourhood Osteo is one of those strategies, then we would be happy to help.

Article by Lachlan Cossens, Osteopath at McKinnon Osteopathy.

To book an appointment with Lachlan Click here or call on 9578 2436




(1). Lundberg, U. (2002). Psychophysiology of work: Stress, gender, endocrine response, and work‐related upper extremity disorders. American journal of industrial medicine, 41(5), 383-392.

(2). McFarlane, A. C. (2007). Stress-related musculoskeletal pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 21(3), 549-565.

(3). Richardson, K. M., & Rothstein, H. R. (2008). Effects of occupational stress management intervention programs: a meta-analysis. Journal of occupational health psychology, 13(1), 69.

(4). Shahidi, B., Haight, A., & Maluf, K. (2013). Differential effects of mental concentration and acute psychosocial stress on cervical muscle activity and posture. Journal of electromyography and kinesiology, 23(5), 1082-1089.

(5). Tension-type headache (TTH) – ICHD-3 The International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd edition. (2018). Retrieved from

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