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  • Writer's pictureDr. Julia

How to Relax the Shoulders with Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

Understand the role of stress and anxiety in muscle tension and how to relax the shoulders with progressive muscle relaxation

Experiencing tension in your neck and shoulders?

Constant pain and discomfort in those areas?

You are not alone. Muscle tension in the shoulders and neck is one of the most common complaints of clients I see with high stress and anxiety.

It can be very frustrating to feel constant tension, nagging, and discomfort in your shoulders and neck when you are trying to be productive, accomplish your goals, and take care of your health.

By understanding how stress and anxiety contribute to muscle tension, you'll have all the insider information on how to reduce muscle tension in your shoulders and body for improved well being, mood, and reduced stress.

How to relax the shoulders

How to Relax the Shoulders: Understand the Stress Response

Before we discuss how to relax the shoulders, it’s helpful to understand why we experience so much tension in the shoulders. Shoulder tension can be related to many things, including certain medical conditions, pain conditions, lifestyle factors, and stress and anxiety.

This article will focus specifically on muscle tension in the shoulders related to stress and anxiety.

When the stress response is activated in the body, the sympathetic nervous system activates and causes a series of physiological changes in the body. The stress response causes adrenaline to pump through the body, which leads to extended contraction of the muscles to prepare the body to respond to a danger.

In a moment of danger, this muscle contraction is helpful for fighting or fleeing. However, in the case of chronic stress, regular muscle contraction can lead to chronic aches, pains, and tension in the shoulders and other areas.

Additionally, when people are feeling stressed and anxious, they might be less likely to sleep well, they might avoid exercise, and their posture may be more slouched, which can also cause more muscle tension and strain.

what causes tight shoulders

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Can Teach You How to Relax the Shoulders

One of the best ways to relax the shoulders, reduce muscle tension, improve stress and anxiety, and sleep better is with progressive muscle relaxation.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a deep relaxation strategy that has been shown to reduce muscle tension, improve pain in the shoulders and neck, and help with general stress and anxiety management. It has also been shown to improve sleep, reduce low back pain, and even improve blood pressure.

As mentioned above, when stress and anxiety kick in, this leads to a series of physiological changes, including increased muscle tension, especially in the neck and shoulders.

Progressive muscle relaxation involves tightening and relaxing different muscle groups, one at a time, to help train the body to be in a more relaxed state.

Because progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce muscle tension, utilizing this exercise before bed can be a great strategy to not only reduce muscle tension, but also improve sleep quality.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Steps for Shoulders and Neck

Because neck tension is involved in shoulder tension, it’s helpful to practice relaxing both the shoulders and neck. Follow the instructions below:

1. Find a comfortable place to relax. Lie down if possible. Otherwise, sit comfortably with your feet on the floor.

2. Start by taking five, slow, deep breaths.

3. Raise your shoulders to your ears. This should be a gentle raise, with about 30-50% tension. Make sure you are not straining your neck or involving other muscle groups.

4. Hold for 5-10 seconds

5. Relax your shoulders quickly as you exhale through your mouth.

6. Roll your shoulders back 5 times, followed by 5 shoulder rolls forward

7. Shake it out

8. Gently pull your chin downwards towards your chest without tensing your shoulders

9. Hold for 5-10 seconds

10. Exhale and relax your neck to a neutral position

shoulder pain stress anxiety

11. Gently stretch your neck to one side

12. Hold for 5-10 seconds

13. Exhale and relax your neck to a neutral position

14. Repeat on the other side

Helpful Tips for Progressive Muscle Relaxation

1. Turn off any distractions to help you fully engage in the progressive muscle relaxation

2. Make progressive muscle relaxation a part of your daily routine, preferably at the same time. Choose a time that works best for you

3. Follow along with a guided version on YouTube or in the CBT-I Coach app

4. Make sure that you are dropping all tension as you exhale rather than slowly releasing the tension

5. This exercise can be used to reduce muscle tension throughout the entire body. Repeat by tensing and relaxing different muscle groups if you would like

Other Considerations to Relax Your Shoulders

One of the best ways to reduce muscle tension in the shoulders, neck, and throughout the body is with progressive muscle relaxation. It’s also helpful to consider a few lifestyle factors that may be related to shoulder tension and discomfort:


Our posture can create muscle imbalances, weakness, and pain and discomfort. Watch for hunched shoulders throughout the day, especially if you are frequently at a computer.

Utilizing the muscle relaxation at your desk can be a great way to check in with your posture and reduce tension throughout the day.

Sleep Position

Our sleep position can impact tension throughout the body. Those who sleep on their side tend to experience more discomfort in their shoulders. Sleeping on the stomach can also create neck tension, which in turn increases shoulder tension.

Check in with your sleep position and make sure that you are supporting yourself with proper pillows to improve spinal alignment.


Shoulder and neck aches and pains can be very frustrating, reduce productivity, and increase stress and anxiety.

Learning to relieve muscle tension throughout the body, especially the shoulders and neck, can be a great strategy to reduce overall stress and anxiety and improve focus throughout the day.

Did you know that stress and anxiety can cause muscle tension throughout the body?


Are you sick of muscle tension, poor attention and focus, digestive issues, and other problems caused by stress and anxiety running your life?

My signature 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of people reduce tension and remove the stress roadblocks in their way to increase their energy, productivity, mood, and more.

Book a discovery call if you're ready to stop letting stress run your life :)

------About Dr. Julia

Hi! I'm Dr. Julia. Health psychologist, stress and sleep expert, and creator of the Master Stress Method.

I have worked with thousands of individuals in major hospitals, university medical centers, and primary care settings to improve their stress levels, sleep, and overall emotional and physical well being.

My current focus is helping busy professionals prevent and manage the high stress that is getting in the way of their productivity, mood, sleep, and their ability to reach their full potential.

My 8-week, 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of stressed out, overwhelmed, and burned out clients significantly reduce their stress and anxiety, improve their sleep, and maximize their productivity, in just 8 short weeks.

I can't wait to help you stop the struggle with stress, for good. Let's chat :)


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