Why We Hold Fear and Anxiety in Our Chest and Shoulders—And 5 Ways To Release It

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As someone who’s dealt with anxiety and panic attacks for two decades, I’m very familiar with the many different ways anxiety manifests in our bodies, including digestive issues and nervous poops. When I’m particularly anxious, I tend to feel tightness in the chest and shoulders, and I’m not the only one.

As for why exactly we hold fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions in our chest and shoulders, it’s due to the mind-body connection. “When our mind is in a state of stress and fight or flight, our bodies are in preparation mode to respond to what it perceives might be potentially even a life or death situation,” explains Judy Ho, PhD, a licensed clinical and forensic neuropsychologist. "This causes the sympathetic nervous system to activate, your heart rate increases, and your body tenses up in preparation to act. Chronically, this can cause muscle tension and soreness throughout the body.” She adds that other signs of anxiety and tension in the body include chronic headaches, a sore jaw, and teeth grinding.

Experts In This Article
  • Judy Ho, PhD, triple board-certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist

Wherever you may hold fear, stress, and anxiety in your body, there are techniques that can help release it. Read on for a handful of strategies to add to your toolkit.

5 ways to release fear and anxiety from your chest and shoulders

1. Do box breathing

Breathwork exercises, in general, are great for calming down. In particular, Dr. Ho recommends box breathing, which helps pump the brakes on the sympathetic stress response. It’s called box breathe because you’re literally (or mentally) drawing a box with your finger while making the four-part breath pattern. Here’s how: “Take a breath in and count to four while drawing one of the vertical sides of a square in front of your face with your finger,” Dr. Ho instructs. “Then hold for four while drawing the top of the box horizontally, then breathe out for four drawing the other vertical side of the box, and hold for four while completing the box by drawing the bottom horizontal line.” Repeat 10 times to feel the fear and anxiety melt away.

2. Do a body scan

Scanning your body from head to toe is another way to help release the stress and anxiety in your chest and shoulders or any other body part. Like breathwork, a body scan meditation is easy and quick, and you can do it anywhere. Find a comfy position and then bring your awareness to your body, Dr. Ho says. Then starting from either your head or your feet, begin to mentally scan through your body and notice where you’re holding tension. Once you pinpoint the specific areas, consciously try to relax that body part, Dr. Ho says. She recommends returning to this practice throughout the day whenever you can spare a couple of minutes.

3. Try progressive muscle relaxation

If you struggle with releasing tension during a body scan, Dr. Ho suggests progressive muscle relaxation as an added or alternative technique. To practice this, get in a comfortable position and focus on one body part at a time. As you do, tense up the muscles for several seconds and then release the tension with a big exhale. Doing so, Dr. Ho says, creates a contrast between the tension and how good it feels to let go and relax.

4. Tap into your senses

Another soothing ritual Dr. Ho recommends adding to your anxiety-busting toolkit is engaging your senses, which can help your body to get into a rest and restoration mode and turn off the fight or flight response. Examples include lighting your favorite candle, splashing cold water on your face, or mindfully eating and enjoying every bite of your food.

5. Stretch it out

When your neck and shoulders are feeling tight, there’s nothing like a good stretching session to help loosen things up. There are tons of neck and shoulders stretches you can do.

We like this quick video because it hits both areas and is only eight minutes:

Specifically, Dr. Ho suggests ones that elongate your neck and shoulders. While the stretches will soothe you physically, she also recommends repeating your favorite mantra as you stretch to help relax the mind. Choose whatever affirmation resonates with you at the moment. Dr. Ho suggests a couple of options: “I can get through the stresses of today,” or “I can handle the challenges ahead.”

Doing some combination of the above techniques regularly will help you nervous system better regulate itself and help you spend more time in rest and digest mode and keeping anxiety at bay.

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