Have you ever wondered why stress is so bad for you? How can mental tension increase the risk of diabetes, heart attacks, and eczema? Stress is not simply a matter of psychology. It involves a part of the nervous system known as the Autonomic Nervous System – the ANS. The ANS is the part that functions subconsciously, in charge of things like heart rate and breathing. It is also in charge of the “fight or flight” response which is triggered by stress.


Evolutionarily, the fight or flight response makes sense for survival. It gives us the physical edge to escape a predator. Blood flow is restricted to digestive and reproductive systems, and diverted to muscles. Smaller muscles in the neck and shoulders engage to assist breathing.

But this is not a long term solution. This response does not resolve modern day stressors that play on our minds for days, weeks, or months. In fact, the heightened risk of depression in chronically stressed people might make these problems worse. The change in breathing mentioned above is a common sign of prolonged stress. Tight, raised shoulders can be a sign of tension.

Breathing under Tension

Along with tightness at the top of the lungs, we often see the same at the base. Excessive tension in the abdomen and diaphragm affect the way we breathe. Breaths may be more shallow and less efficient. These changes often go unnoticed in times of stress, but if someone asked you to relax your shoulders and abdomen, you might be surprised by how tightly you were holding them.

The good news is that releasing those muscles helps you to feel more relaxed, and feeling relaxed leads to less tension in those muscles.

Jaw Problems and Stress

Jaw clenching is another common symptom that can go unnoticed. Sometimes the only sign is someone else commenting on your teeth grinding overnight. Headaches can be associated with general tightness in this area too.

Postural changes associated with stress can cause tension in the jaw as shown in the diagram above. Often patients with jaw problems are unsure who can help them. Your osteopath can help here, including when the symptoms are associated with tension.

Osteopathy for Tension

We don’t claim to reduce your stress, but we know that touch can reduce pain and stress. Physical treatment is a part of breaking the fight or flight cycle. We want to show the ANS that you’re not in danger, and touch can help with that. As mentioned above, after working to improve breathing mechanics you might feel more relaxed. Holistic treatment looks further afield to other areas affected by these changes too.

Your osteopath can also give more general advice. We have plenty of time in which to identify other factors in your tension. Are you wearing high waisted, tight clothing? This could encourage tightness in the diaphragm and abdomen. Do your shoulders have to tighten against a heavy bag? Maybe you could use a thicker strap or backpack to spread the weight.

Finally, we aren’t counsellors, but a problem shared is a problem halved. All aspects of your appointment are confidential, and if it helps you to talk, we can listen. If you want more help in this area, we can help you find the practitioner you need.

If you need help managing the effects of tension, make an appointment at Wiltshire Osteopathy today.