How to Stretch Your Neck and Relieve Stress

Woman stretching her neck

Getty Images / Charday Penn 

If you have ever had a tight neck before, you know how uncomfortable and even debilitating it can be. A tight neck often limits your ability to move your neck without pain or discomfort and can often feel as though your whole neck is stiff or achy.

These unpleasant symptoms can persist for hours or even days on end, making it quite challenging to carry on with your day-to-day responsibilities. You also may be unable to actually shift your neck from side to side and look in certain directions. 

In an effort to relieve yourself from this discomfort and lack of maneuverability, you might be tempted to stretch your neck and loosen it from the tightness. Doing so can be quite effective and there are certain techniques that can relieve the tension and stress you’re holding in your neck area. 

“[When] stretching any muscle in your body—particularly your neck—hold it in an elongated position for a short amount of time and this reflexively allows the muscles to feel more relaxed,” explains Alex Tauberg, DC, CSCS, chiropractor, and certified strength and condition specialist. 

Below, we will dive into some of the causes of a tight and stressed neck and how to relieve yourself from the discomfort. 

Why Your Neck Might Be Tight

If your neck feels tight and restrained, you might be wracking your brain to figure out why. Most often, the reasons are due to lifestyle behaviors and certain events that might be causing you emotional distress. Here is a look at some of the most common culprits of neck tightness.

You're Stressed

You might notice that your neck becomes more tight during times of high stress—and this is hardly your imagination at work. In fact, research has shown a strong association between chronic neck pain as a symptom during times of mental stress. 

“Tightness, including the kind that occurs in the neck area, is actually a self-protective part of the ‘fight or flight’ stress response and is the body's way of gearing up to survive a perceived physical threat,” explains David Friedman, ND, DC, doctor of naturopathy, clinical nutritionist, and chiropractic neurologist. 

It is this same “flight or fight response” that can cause our neck to tighten up during times of struggle or upon receiving bad news, such as the loss of a job or the passing of a loved one, he notes.

You Have Poor Sleep Hygiene

If you’ve ever slept the wrong way, you’re likely to wake up with some neck tightness. The two most common culprits that lead to poor sleep and neck pain, according to Dr. Friedman, are sleeping on more than one pillow and sleeping on your stomach. 

Sleeping on your stomach, he warns, can cause your cervical spine to remain in a twisted position that can lead to discomfort in your neck area the following morning. Additionally, sleeping with more than one pillow can lift your head in a position that strains your cervical muscles (the muscles attached to your cervical spine). Instead of doubling up on your pillows, he recommends using a cervical pillow or rolled-up towel (about the circumference of your forearm) and placing it under your pillowcase. 

“Doing this helps to maintain the natural ‘C’ curve of your neck and will take pressure off your cervical and thoracic spine,” he says.

Your Posture is Off

Posture also has a lot to do with neck tightness, and this can especially impact those who sit behind a desk and work on a computer for a living. Research has linked forward head posture to neck pain tightness. 

“Leaning over a keyboard or texting causes additional pressure on your spine and its muscles,” says Allen Conrad, BS, DC, CSCS, Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in North Wales, Pennsylvania. “The body is not designed for prolonged sitting and typing, so anything you can do to improve your posture will help reduce neck stiffness.” 

Dr. Conrad recommends taking frequent breaks to stretch and setting up an ergonomic office workstation as a solution to help prevent a stiff neck. 

Stretches to Relieve Neck Tightness

Stretching is an easy and effective solution to help alleviate the sensation of tightness and stress in your neck. Here are some expert-recommended stretches that can help relieve tension and neck tightness. 

Cervical Retractions

This type of stretch might have a fancy name, but it’s relatively simple to do. It involves keeping your neck in a straight position while tucking your chin and helps elongate the deep neck flexors that are often tightened when staring at a computer screen for long periods of time, explains Dr. Tauberg.

Start sitting as upright as possible in a chair, maintaining proper posture. While looking forward, try to bring your head straight back as far as you can and hold for a second before returning to a neutral position. When performing a cervical retraction, Jordan Duncan, DC, a chiropractor at Silverdale Sport & Spine in Silverdale, Washington, warns against letting your head tilt up or down. 

“A good cue is to pretend that you have a laser pointer at the end of your nose pointing toward the wall in front of you,” he says. “Keep the laser still as you retract back.” 

Upper Trapezius Stretch

The trapezius muscle is the back part of your shoulder that is responsible for moving and rotating your shoulder blade, stabilizing your arm, and extending your neck, explains Dr. Friedman. Due to its frequency of use and connection to the neck region, it’s quite common to experience stress and tension in this area. 

“You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘You have the weight of the world on your shoulders,’” says Dr. Friedman. “That global bombardment shows up in the upper trapezius muscle.”

To practice this stretch, he recommends sitting in a chair and tightly grasp the bottom of the seat with your fingers. Place the other hand on top of your head, lean to the opposite side, and use your hand to gently help guide your ear to your shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on both sides.

Cervical Extension Stretch

Many of us work on laptops or desk setups that have us looking downwards. We also tend to tilt our head down when we’re using a smartphone, tablet or even reading a book. Doing so can can cause undue pressure and tightness on the cervical spine, warns Dr. Friedman. Luckily this stretch can help reduce the tension and pain that this downward position can cause. 

Dr. Friedman recommends using a rubber tube, elastic belt, necktie, or a rolled-up towel and placing it behind the center of the neck and grab each end with your hands. Next, lean back slightly while looking upwards at the same time as you pull the rubber tube in a forward direction.   

Other Ways to Release Tension and Relieve Stress

In addition to stretching their neck, there are other ways you can relax their neck and reduce stress. Here are some examples. Here are some things you can try.

Apply Moist Heat

Perhaps the easiest and most time-sensitive solutions to relieve neck pain is to apply moist heat directly to the effected area. 

“Using heat helps to dilate blood vessels and increases blood flow, which may improve blood circulation and reduce spasms,” says Dr. Friedman.

Massage Therapy

One of the most accessible resources for individuals suffering from neck pain is massage therapy. Research has shown massage therapy to be effective in reducing subacute, or long-lasting neck pain.  

“Massage therapy is helpful in reducing pain and stiffness associated with a stiff neck and can help you feel better, decrease stress, and improve muscle tension,” says Dr. Conrad.

Relaxation Techniques

That tightening that occurs in your neck when you are stressed out can be undone with a few science-backed relaxation techniques, including biofeedback. For instance, biofeedback helps create an awareness and control of your heart rate while guided imagery promotes positive thoughts and visualizations. Another option is to try deep breathing which involves taking deep breaths with slow inhales and exhales. These approaches can help release the tension in your neck.

When to See a Healthcare Provider 

If your neck pain is the result of an accident or incident of any kind, seek medical care immediately. If it is the result of daily movement or sleep habits, or anything that is non-emergency-related, it is a good idea to healthcare provider if stretching alone doesn’t resolve your neck pain within a few days. 

“[They] will perform a detailed musculoskeletal examination to determine the cause of your injury,” says Dr. Conrad. “They [also] will provide options for treatment, and help prepare a care plan of treatment to help get you back to your pre-injury status as fast as possible.” 

 A Word From Verywell

Neck pain is not uncommon, but it shouldn’t have to be something that you suffer through. Fortunately, there are many at-home stretches that can help alleviate your pain. If you’re not experiencing relief after a few days, it’s a good idea to see a healthcare provider who can recommend you to a physical therapist, chiropractor, or orthopedic specialist to help you figure out a solution. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the fastest way to relieve neck tension?

    One of the fastest ways to achieve relief from neck tension is by stretching the affected area. Another important thing to do if you are noticing increasing neck tension is to consider any lifestyle behaviors that might be the cause, including poor sleep habits, bad posture, and prolonged computer use.  

  • How can I get my neck muscles to relax?

    If stretching is not helping you experience relief and relaxation from muscle tension, there are a number of options you could try like massage therapy, physical therapy, and chiropractic care. Each of these options is effective in treating the causes of neck stiffness.

    You also might try making lifestyle changes as well like moving more during the day, practicing mindfulness, and implementing relaxation techniques. By reducing pressure in the spine and its nervous system, you are helping prevent the cause of muscle tension, which will help with muscle relaxation.

  • How does stress lead to tight neck muscles?

    You may have been told that “you look tense,” during periods of time when you’re feeling stressed or on edge. There’s good reason for this. When we are stressed, our bodies naturally tighten up, especially your neck area, which holds a significant amount of muscles and is impacted by nearly every movement you make. 

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Mahmoud NF, Hassan KA, Abdelmajeed SF, Moustafa IM, Silva AG. The relationship between forward head posture and neck pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2019;12(4):562-577. doi:10.1007/s12178-019-09594-y

  3. Skillgate E, Bill AS, Côté P, Viklund P, Peterson A, Holm LW. The effect of massage therapy and/or exercise therapy on subacute or long-lasting neck pain - the Stockholm neck trial (Stone): study protocol for a randomized controlled trialTrials. 2015;16(1):414. doi:10.1186/s13063-015-0926-4

  4. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Relaxation techniques for health.

By Jenn Sinrich
Jenn Sinrich is a Boston-based freelance editor, writer, and content strategist. She received her BA in journalism from Northeastern University and has more than a decade of experience working as an on-staff editor for various publications.