Can Anxiety Cause Muscle Pain?
Pain, aches, tension, and soreness are very common side-effects of anxiety
MUSCLE TENSION AND PAIN
- Unexplained pains and aches in one or several parts of the body
- Pain that comes and goes quickly, lasts for longer times, or is persistent and ongoing
- Muscle twitches
- Parts of, or entire body feeling tense
- Frequent cramping
Pain, aches, tension, and soreness are very common side-effects of anxiety. We even have a name for physical symptoms caused by psychological disorders, psychosomatic.
But before we blindly assume that a particular pain or ache is caused by anxiety we should always consult a medical professional to rule out physical causes!
A headache could be due to stress or anxiety, but it could also mean dehydration, a cold, a sinus infection, or any of a thousand other causes. The same is true for any other part of the body, physical causes should always be ruled out first.
Although anxiety can causes pains in any part of the body, chest pain is especially scary. It’s very easy to panic if we assume something is wrong with our heart or that we’re in the middle of a heart attack.
There’s very rarely anything to worry about, because chest pain is one of the most common complaints in anxiety disorders. (It’s also one of the few physical symptoms my own anxiety regularly gives me). But again it’s important to rule out physical causes, even if just to calm ourselves down.
THE ANXIETY AND STRESS RESPONSE
Anxiety and stress both activate the infamous fight or flight response. This happens because the brain believes we’re in a dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation.
Adrenaline is released into the bloodstream whenever this response is activated, and adrenaline causes a lot of uncomfortable symptoms.
One of the things adrenaline does is to make all of our muscles tense up in preparation for either fighting or running away. Once the threat is removed, we naturally return to a relaxed state.
But in anxiety disorders and during chronic stress this response is always activated, and we’re never allowed to relax.
If you want to know how this causes pain and aches you can intentionally tense your arm and keep tensing it for 30 seconds. It gets very uncomfortable quickly. Now imagine this happening to a lesser degree all over your body, continually.
When a muscle is never relaxed it becomes sore and prone to aching and cramping!
An anxious breathing pattern can make it worse
A relaxed breathing pattern is slow and deep, but if you’re feeling anxious you’re probably doing the exact opposite.
Rapid and short breathing causes something called hyperventilation, and hyperventilation causes blood vessels to constrict.
When blood vessels are constricted blood has a difficult time travelling around the body. This means muscles can end up temporarily lacking oxygen, causing all kinds of uncomfortable symptoms, including pain.
The easiest way to deal with hyperventilation is to take control of our breathing, intentionally switching to a more relaxed breathing pattern.
HOW TO REDUCE ANXIOUS MUSCLE PAIN
In an ideal world we would jump directly into reducing our actual anxiety. No anxiety naturally means no pesky symptoms of anxiety after all. But anxiety recovery is not a race, it’s really more like a marathon.
That’s an awfully cliche statement, I know. But as with most things, baby steps is the way to go when recovering from anxiety. Let’s take a look at how we can start taking steps toward a full recovery and reduce muscle pain at the same time!
Our muscle pain, aches, soreness, and cramps are caused by leftover tension, so we need a way to release that tension. Luckily we have a tool designed exactly for that!
That tool is physical relaxation! An added benefit is that physical relaxation not only releases tension, but it also reduces anxiety levels over time through regular practice.
Types of physical relaxation
When I mentioned hyperventilation earlier I also mentioned the possibility of choosing a relaxed breathing pattern. In my opinion this is the most important relaxation technique anyone suffering from anxiety can learn.
This technique is usually called abdominal breathing, and it works by stimulating the vagus nerve. It takes no more than 5 minutes, and the effects are nothing short of amazing! Here’s how:
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath through your nose.
- Feel the air enter your abdomen, your stomach rising as it does.
- Hold the air for a second or two.
- Exhale slowly until your lungs are empty.
- Repeat this 5 times.
It’s usually considered good if your exhale is about twice as long as your inhale, and a breath cycle of 8-10 seconds is ideal for relaxation.
In the beginning this can be a bit uncomfortable, and that’s why you’re advised to stop after 5 repetitions. You can also practice abdominal breathing at any point throughout the day, especially if you’re starting to feel anxious.
Setting aside a couple of minutes to wind down and relax before and after abdominal breathing is great, if you got the time!
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Nothing beats progressive muscle relaxation when it comes to releasing tension, or PMR as it’s usually called.
You can get a good idea as to how PMR works by clenching your fist, holding it for a couple of seconds, then quickly releasing all of the tension. Now feel the tension disappear from your hand.
In a full session of PMR we lie down in bed and work our way through our entire body, tensing and releasing all of the muscle groups. A completely relaxed body is the result when done correctly, much the same way you might feel after a good massage.
Practicing this often makes it easier to notice tension, and it makes your body more tolerant. A less tense body means less pain and aches, but it also means less anxiety. So over time PMR can cause a very real reduction in anxiety levels as well.
Other types of physical relaxation
If you’re looking for a more structured way to release tension and relax the body you can opt for yoga, tai chi, or light exercise. These three have more than proven their worth by helping, and continuing to help millions of people struggling with anxiety disorders.
Yoga and tai chi can be practiced at home, but it has also become very popular to join classes taught by professionals. A quick Google search usually results in plenty of hits if you’re interested in one of these classes.
As for light exercise, everything required for noticeable effects on anxiety is a 10 minute walk a couple of times a week.
Do you have any experiences with pains or aches from anxiety? Let me know in the comments below, I love to hear back from you!