What Causes Tension in the Shoulders and Neck?

Search online for solutions on neck pain and tension and you’re likely to find page after page of stretches and posture corrections and strengthening exercises layered on top of reprimands about computers, smart phones and even your sleeping position.

For the record, there’s no right way to sleep, as long as you’re sleeping and not waking up from pain. Leave your poor body alone to rest.

(Anyone who has ever had the honor of being owned by a cat knows there are infinite options for sleeping positions.)

But back to your neck and shoulders, I’m sure you’ve tried some of the usual recommendations already. Maybe you’ve visited a specialist to rub out your pain or skillfully place needles for a chi adjustment.

All good things.

But, after years of observing humans in their natural habitat (read: cities), I’ve concluded that neck and shoulder tension aren’t body problems.

They’re cultural problems.

For a complaint as universal as neck and shoulder tension (have you ever met anyone who didn’t feel the gripping in their upper backs?), you’ve got to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is the culture.

Pretty much everyone is rushing around from place to place these days. And if you’re not physically moving, your brain is jumping from task to task, trying to contain your entire to-do list of 523 things.

Tension happens when you’re readying for something. Or when you’re startled. Either way, tension is a predecessor to movement.

When you have a thought about doing something, your muscles tighten imperceptibly in readiness. It happens when you think about picking up a glass of water, or gaze longingly at the Costa Rican beach on your desk calendar.

Athletes have known this for decades. Visualization — the practice of imagining yourself playing your sport — is a widely used training tactic.

It’s not just about the mental game. Visualization gets your body in sync with your brain. It builds muscle memory.

And it works on non-athletes, too. Every time you feel the financial pinch of unexpected taxes, or your presentation accidentally gets half deleted and you have to rebuild it with only five hours to spare, or you just feel overbooked, overburdened and overwhelmed, your shoulders tense.

They tense in readiness to get something done.

And they tense in defense of all the stress. Because your body only understands stress as a threat to your life.

Humans are extremely complex social creatures; our brains are designed that way.

When you’re born, your brain immediately begins seeking ways to foster connection to other people, to preserve your personal safety and even to solidify your social strata because being a part of the tribe is essential to your survival.

Any threat to these three elements triggers your peril sensors (or sunglasses, if you’re lucky enough to have those). Any social rejection, any potential layoff at work, even feeling acute physical pain, can all trigger your defenses.

One client struggled with pain that wouldn’t go away after a severe injury. Through our work, we uncovered that this person felt they’d barely survived the intensity of pain immediately following the initial accident.

Therefore, connecting to the not insignificant residual pain — the pain that seemingly would not heal — caused this person to, on a very primal level, fear for survival.

These things aren’t rational, people. They’re biological. You can’t reason with them.

Stretches weren’t the right remedy for this particular person. In this case, you can’t address the pain without first and foremost dealing with the trauma. So stretching tight muscles is like putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Another person notably went from a relaxed jaw and throat while lying down to clenching his chin whenever he was standing. A clenched jaw stiffens the tissue around your neck and shoulders, and even affects your spine all the way down to between your shoulder blades.

This person had built the muscle memory of “armoring up” to face the stresses of the world. He was putting on a mask, so to speak.

This is why stretching doesn’t seem to work long term. It feels better for a short period right after you perform the exercise, but as soon as you mentally shift gears back to the stresses and pressures facing you, then tension returns.

And let’s be honest here, an hour of yoga three times a week won’t counteract 165 hours of clenching, or, allowing for six hours of sleep a night (and assuming you’re actually relaxed while sleeping), 123 hours.

It’s what you do repeatedly that becomes the habit. And tension is the habit.

However, I’m not setting the blame squarely on your shoulders. I don’t think it’s your fault at all, actually.

Everyone wants to tell you to change your habits, but I want to look at why the habit formed in the first place.

Our culture is complicit in perpetuating our tension and our pain by refusing to address the underlying causes of our relentless stress.

On a very grave level, the chronic, daily stress foisted upon those who face judgement and discrimination directly affect their physical and mental well being.

Those trapped in a cycle of poverty lack the means of escaping their perpetual Ferris wheel of struggle just to get their basic needs met.

(For some great reporting on the poverty situation in America, I wholeheartedly recommend On the Media’s Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.)

Even those firmly entrenched in the middle fight hard. People with solid, high-paying jobs still find social pressures squeezing hard against them — little to no paid maternity leave, demotions at work when the dad actually takes paternity leave offered, executives boasting about how many years they’ve gone without a vacation (or how they always work when they’re on the beach in Tahiti), regular office workers clocking eighty-hour weeks, and on and on and on.

And let’s not even talk about the political scene right now. Whether you lean right or left or just want to hide your head under the closest blanket, everyone is cranked into high gear.

Instead of acknowledging the fact that we are a nation of stressed out, overworked, under-rested individuals, our medical system foists upon us a series of stretches and exercises that simply add one more line to already crammed to-do lists.

Because that’s the system. When you complain of a lack, the formula it feeds back at you invariably informs you to simply work harder. Or do it righter.

Because clearly you’re not doing enough.

We live in a system that tells us if we simply apply enough effort, we will get to a place where we can rest and be rewarded. That there is some meaning to all this madness. Put in the time now, reap the rewards later.

This same idea, taken to extremity, doesn’t play out. Hard work doesn’t necessarily equate to benefits.

The right work does.

So, this has taken us to a dark place. Neck and shoulder tension is a result of cultural forces that are beyond your control.

Are you feeling hopeless? Please don’t.

Because there’s a lot that’s within your control. Like space, and how much of it you take up. Owning your space creates healthy boundaries — and keeps you healthy.

Forget about stretching. (Well, not entirely, it’s still good to move and bend and stretch, of course.)

Have you ever gone on vacation and noticed all your pain disappeared, melting away into the sea like so many grains of sand?

This is what you do. Create space to nurture yourself.

Literal space is great. Get outside the city into expansive areas. Let your body feel what it’s like to take the pressure off.

Make space for your mind. Schedule blank times into your day with no agenda. Guard them as though your life depends on it (because it does). When they arrive, do whatever feels good. You might use the time to catch up on paperwork, or to go outside and watch the tulips bloom.

Or, just stare at the ceiling. It’s your time, so it’s impossible to waste.

And create space inside your body. This is the work that I do with my clients, and in The Space Lab, my signature program. I’ve learned that how you move your body is how you move through life.

And when you change the way you move? You change your whole damn life.

If the idea piques your interest, you’re welcome to hop on the wait list here to be first in line when the program opens for enrollment again (hint: super soon). Plus, get my Own Your Space book for free.

Because taking back what’s rightfully yours can’t wait another day.

P.S. If you want to read more about how you can create space for yourself, I recommend this post on anxiety and this one on taking up space.