Where our bodies hold stress (and how to release it)

“Where do you hold stress?”

If you’ve ever talked to a physical therapist, trainer, chiropractor or masseuse, you’ve likely been asked this question. Most people identify their shoulders, but there are many places in the body where people “hold stress” — or engage muscles in a way that it causes pain, tension or fatigue.

Here are 5 common places you may hold stress and tips on how to release it.

Jaw and neck

Think about the last time you got bad news, or read a frustrating message. Did you clench your jaw or grind your teeth? Many of us respond that way, reflexively tightening and compressing the neck or tensing the jaw, which pulls the head forward. That can cause headaches and fatigue or pain in the face, neck and jaw.

Release it:

  • Pretend to yawn, stretching your mouth wide open.
  • Make a point to hold your jaw open every couple of hours during the day to break the habit of clenching.
  • Try to keep your tongue touching the roof of your mouth when at rest.
  • Practice the jaw joint stretch: Slowly open and close your mouth (10 times) while keeping your tongue pressed to the roof of your mouth behind your top front teeth.
  • If you think you may be grinding your teeth at night, ask your dentist about mouthguards.


Many of us hunch our shoulders (round them forward) while typing, driving, reading or eating. We also tense them when we’re nervous or concentrating, lifting our shoulders toward our ears. Keeping those muscles constantly engaged can lead to soreness, tightness and tension.

Release it:

  • The way we hold our shoulders is a habit, so noticing when you’re tensing or rolling them forward may help. Try putting a sign that says “back and down” behind your computer or on your mirror to remind you.
  • Release shoulder tension with yoga poses:
    • Straighten your arms and clasp your hands behind your back. Bend forward at the waist and let your arms stretch over as far as they can go.
    • Use eagle pose to broaden the back and relax the shoulders.
    • Try cow face pose using a strap to force shoulders back and down.


While we think of stress as something that affects our muscles, it can also affect organs like the stomach, which is made up of muscles. Stress triggers a “flight-or-fight” response that can slow digestion and lead to constipation. Conversely, it can also cause diarrhea, pain or gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Chronic stress can also cause ulcers.

Release it:

Unlike the shoulders or jaw, stress that affects the stomach must be treated emotionally as well as physically.

  • Talk to your doctor to rule out underlying GI conditions, and then
  • Focus on finding healthy ways to handle stress, like exercise, meditation or talking to a friend.

Lower back

More than 80% of people will experience low back pain at some point in their lives. While it’s often triggered by an injury (sciatica, lifting a heavy object) or the way we sit or sleep, lower back pain can also be triggered by stress. The muscles at the base of the spine feel like they’re tied in knots, and the pain worsens if you’re depressed or anxious.

Release it:


Unless you’ve taken a yoga class or suffered a hip injury, you may not realize hips are a place where you can hold stress. It can be physical tightness from exercising, strain from sitting at a desk all day, or simply a lack of use that causes stiffness.

Release it:

To learn more stress-related conditions and how a chiropractor may be able to help, click here

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.