Can stress cause physical pain?  It’s a great question and one we get on a fairly regular basis.  The short answer is yes, but getting to how and why requires a bit of explanation.

Stress is caused by the hormone cortisol, which controls our “fight or flight” response.  As stress levels increase, the muscles in your body tend to tense up in anticipation of an imminent threat.  The more stress you find yourself under, the more your muscles will tense.

Under normal conditions, stress only lasts a short while. However, in our modern “always on” world, many people find themselves in high stress situations that last for weeks, months, or even longer.  When your muscles stay tense for extended periods of time, it can absolutely cause real, physical pain.

It gets even worse than that, however, because pain makes us worried and anxious, which leads to higher levels of stress. This only serves to make your muscles even more tense, making the pain even more severe.

Of course, high stress is only one possible cause of back, neck, and shoulder pain, so the next logical question is how can you tell if this particular pain is being caused by stress or some specific injury?

Stress-related pain tends to have the following characteristics:

  • The muscle pain tends to be diffuse and not tied to a specific location. Some people who suffer from stress-induced pain swear that it seems to move around from one part of the body to another.
  • Muscles tend to be tender in certain areas of the body that you know you haven’t strained or pulled.
  • Your sleep patterns will be disturbed, and you’ll feel generally fatigued and tired, in addition to feeling sore.

Perhaps the best way to confirm or rule out that your pain is being caused by stress is to take action to reduce the amount of stress you’re under.  The best way to do that is to get up and take a relaxing walk, at least fifteen minutes a day, every day.

Science has shown that a fifteen minute walk in the woods will reduce your body’s cortisol by as much as  50 percent.  If you don’t live in an area with woods nearby, don’t worry.  A fifteen minute walk in an urban setting will still reduce your cortisol levels by up to 25 percent.  Once your stress levels begin to fall, the pain caused by your increased stress will recede on its own.  If it doesn’t, then that’s a pretty good indication that your pain is being caused by something else.