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Where do you hold the most stress in your body?

Stress is increasingly prevalent in modern life. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, average stress levels have steadily increased over the past decade. 1 Chronic stress can have serious impacts on both mental and physical health. When under stress, the body responds by releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While this is an adaptive response in the short-term, prolonged activation of the stress response can cause wear and tear on the body and mind.

Stress manifests itself both emotionally and physically. People often describe feeling tense, anxious, irritable, or depressed when stressed. However, stress also commonly causes physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, stomach issues, and more. Interestingly, research shows that people tend to hold and somatize stress in different parts of their bodies. Read on to learn about the common physical manifestations of stress and where people tend to hold tension in the body.

Head and Neck

The head and neck region is one of the most frequent sites where people experience stress-related symptoms. In fact, up to 75% of individuals with stress report frequent tension headaches or migraines. 2 Headache pain linked to stress often presents as tightness or pressure around the forehead, temples, and back of the head. Migraines additionally involve more severe unilateral pulsing pain along with symptoms like nausea, light sensitivity, and aura disturbances.

Tension concentrated in the face may also lead to temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction. TMJ disorders involve pain in the jaw muscles and joints. Individuals with TMJ dysfunction frequently experience tightness in the jaw, difficulty opening the mouth, and popping/clicking sounds with jaw movement. Stress and emotional distress are major risk factors for developing TMJ pain. 3

The neck is another common site for stress accumulation. Up to 60% of people with chronic stress report frequent neck stiffness, pain, or tightness of muscles. 4 This occurs because the trapezius and sternocleidomastoid muscles in the neck contain a high density of stress-sensitive motor units. Conditions like chronic neck muscle tension, whiplash injuries, and cervical disc herniation tend to worsen during times of high stress. Activities like constantly looking down at phones, poor posture, and office work may further add to neck strain.

Common head and neck symptoms of stress include:

  • Tension headaches
  • Migraines
  • Jaw and TMJ pain
  • Neck tightness/pain
  • Shoulder tension

Managing stress levels through relaxation techniques like meditation, massage, and exercise may help reduce headache and neck pain symptoms. Seeking care from a physician, dentist, or physical therapist can also help diagnose and treat sources of tension.


After the head and neck, the back is the second most common site for stress-induced body aches and pain. Up to 80% of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetime. 5 While back pain often stems from muscle strain or injuries like disc herniation, chronic stress significantly increases one’s risk.

During times of stress, muscles like the trapezius and latissimus dorsi can tense up and go into spasm. This causes symptomatic tightness and soreness in the back, especially around the shoulder blades. Postural changes from stress like slouching when sitting may further strain the spine and exacerbate back discomfort.

The lower back area may also bear the burden of chronic stress. Lumbar muscles contain sensory neurons that are highly reactive to emotional stress signals. 6 As a result, people frequently report low back tightness, aching, and pain during stressful periods. Conditions like chronic low back pain, sciatica, and degenerative disc disease also tend to flare up when individuals feel chronically stressed.

Here are some common back symptoms associated with high stress levels:

  • Upper back tightness and soreness
  • Pain between shoulder blades
  • Low back muscle tension
  • Radiating lower back pain
  • Decreased spinal mobility

Practicing back strengthening and stretching exercises can help ease tension in back muscles. Relaxation techniques and stress management may also help reduce back pain by lowering overall stress hormone levels. However, persistent or worsening back pain should be evaluated by one’s doctor.


The chest area is prone to various somatic stress symptoms like heart palpitations, tightness, and pain. Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system and stress response can increase resting heart rate and blood pressure. This causes forceful pounding of the heart against the ribcage, leading to palpitations or “heart fluttering”.

Intense emotions like anxiety, panic, anger, and grief can also generate chest tightness and pain symptoms. Up to 25% of people with chronic anxiety experience recurring chest discomfort unrelated to any cardiac conditions. 7 Difficulty taking deep breaths may also accompany chest tightness due to shallower breathing patterns when stressed.

Muscle tension from hunching over or crossed arms can further produce chest soreness and stiffness. Costochondritis, an inflammatory condition causing chest wall pain, is also aggravated by high stress levels. Altogether, these factors can create distressing physical chest symptoms that mimic heart problems. However, cardiology testing in these patients generally yields normal results.

Common chest symptoms associated with stress include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest tightness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest wall pain
  • Heart fluttering sensation

While chest symptoms from stress are not dangerous, they can still significantly impact one’s quality of life. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation can help reduce chest tension and ease stress-related symptoms. In some cases, anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed to manage debilitating chest discomfort.

Gut and Abdomen

Many individuals with high stress report gastrointestinal complaints like stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This mind-gut interaction is bidirectional; gut issues can worsen stress, while stress also exacerbates gastrointestinal symptoms.

Research shows that nearly 50% of people with chronic life stress have gastrointestinal symptoms. 8 Stress signals in the central nervous system increase gut epithelial permeability, alter gastrointestinal motility, and shift gut microbiome balance. These effects make the digestive tract hypersensitive and prone to inflammation, triggering IBS flares and discomfort.

Stress can also manifest in the upper abdomen. For instance, chronic anxiety may cause dyspepsia symptoms like epigastric burning, bloating, and indigestion. Prolonged tensing of the abdominal muscles from stress can also produce muscular pain in the upper abdomen. Individuals may additionally experience heartburn, nausea, stomach upset, or loss of appetite during intensely stressful episodes.

Some common gut and abdominal symptoms of high stress include:

  • Heartburn/dyspepsia
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal muscle tension
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea

Managing one’s stress through self-care activities, psychotherapy, and medications can help reduce flares of gastrointestinal symptoms. Strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, and mindfulness meditation also show efficacy in easing IBS linked to stress and emotions. Furthermore, minimizing gut irritants in one’s diet may alleviate stress-related gut hypersensitivity.


While less discussed than other areas, the hands are another part of the body that commonly manifest physical symptoms of stress. For instance, excess tension and pressure on the hands can produce painful conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, and tendonitis.

Up to 50% of carpal tunnel syndrome cases are associated with work and emotional stress. 9 Stress causes sustained contractions of the hand and wrist muscles, compressing the median nerve running through the carpal tunnel in the wrist. This nerve compression produces sensations of numbness, tingling, and shooting pain into the thumb, index and middle finger.

Similarly, high levels of repetitive stress and hand tension can lead to trigger finger and tendonitis. Trigger finger involves painful locking and popping of the fingers due to swollen flexor tendons. Tendonitis refers to enlarged, irritated tendons in the hands and wrists marked by localized pain and inflammation.

Clenching or wringing of one’s hands can also be an outward manifestation of inner stress and anxiety. This habit can exacerbate hand tension, pain, and risk of injury to the delicate joints and connective tissues of the hands. Consideration of any occupational stresses on the hands may be warranted in those with stress-associated hand pain.

Some common hand problems linked to high stress levels include:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Trigger finger
  • De Quervain’s tendonitis
  • Gripping or clenching hands
  • Wringing hands

Implementing ergonomic changes, stretching, and massage may help ease tension in the hands. Stress management is also important to control involuntary hand habits related to one’s anxiety levels. Use of wrist braces or splints at night can provide additional support to prevent irritation of the median nerve or flexor tendons in the wrist.


In addition to neck and back tightness, stress commonly manifests as shoulder tension, pain, and restricted mobility. The shoulders and neck tend to rise up and hunch forward in response to stressors or perceived threats. This impairs mobility of the shoulder joints and causes muscular tightness and spasming.

Research indicates that up to 65% of patients with shoulder pain report emotional distress such as depression and anxiety. 10 Conditions like adhesive capsulitis (“frozen shoulder”) often flare up during times of heightened stress as the shoulder muscles constrict. Overuse injuries like rotator cuff tendonitis may also worsen with increased tension through the shoulder joint.

Poor posture such as slouching at a desk can further feed into shoulder pain and immobility issues. The weight of the arms pulling down on the shoulders all day strains the supporting muscles and rotator cuff tendons. Head forward posture also contributes to rounding of the shoulders, limiting their range of motion.

Common signs of stress and tension in the shoulders include:

  • Shoulder muscle tightness
  • Pain at top/front of shoulders
  • Restricted shoulder mobility
  • Difficulty reaching overhead
  • Shoulder tension headaches

Improving posture, stretching the shoulder muscles, and strengthening the upper back can help ease shoulder tension. Massage therapy may also provide relief by directly loosening tight shoulder muscles. As always, reducing one’s overall stress levels and anxiety remains key to addressing stress-related somatic symptoms.


As mentioned earlier, the jaw region is highly susceptible to stress accumulation and resulting pain. Jaw clenching, tooth grinding (bruxism), and cheek biting are common manifestations of anxiety and tension. This excessive muscle strain in the jaw can lead to issues like temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD) and myofascial pain.

Up to 40% of adults grind their teeth at night due to sleep arousals and subconscious stress. 11 Jaw clenching from chronic stress is also very common. These habitual parafuntions place enormous force on the temporomandibular joint and surrounding jaw muscles, resulting in acute and chronic pain. Individuals with TMD report 3 to 5 times more daily life stress than the general population. 12

Myofascial pain represents another way jaw stress can become painful. Here, specific myofascial trigger points develop in overworked jaw muscles like the masseter, temporalis, and lateral pterygoids. These tight, irritable knots in the muscles refer pain to the face, temples, ears, and down the neck when compressed.

Some characteristic signs of high stress levels in the jaw include:

  • Jaw clenching/tightness
  • Tooth grinding
  • Pain/soreness in face and jaw muscles
  • Clicking, popping jaw
  • Limited mouth opening

Use of night guards and occlusal splints can help protect the teeth from damage during clenching and grinding episodes. Physical therapy focuses on relaxing the strained jaw muscles and regaining proper joint mechanics. Psychotherapy and stress reduction are also critical to help avoid jaw-related issues stemming from chronic stress overload.


Stress has far-reaching effects throughout the body. From the head down to the fingers, our musculoskeletal systems reflect high stress levels through symptoms of pain, tightness, and restricted mobility. Learning to recognize where one holds stress in the body is an important first step in managing its somatic effects.

Relaxation techniques, ergonomic modifications, and targeted stretches and exercises can provide relief in tension-prone areas. Still, addressing the root cause by developing healthy stress coping skills remains most critical. This may involve lifestyle changes to reduce stressors, therapy and counseling, or anxiety-relieving medications if needed.

With mindful attention and care for one’s body, the damaging physical effects of chronic stress can be minimized. This comprehensive approach helps restore comfort and function to both the body and mind.