It is believed that when we are under stress our skeletal muscles tense up. However I am unable to explain why.Emotional stress is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system which has effects only on smooth muscles. However skeletal muscles are controlled by the somatic nervous system, so I was wondering what are some theories that explain tension on skeletal muscles?


Short answer
The stress response included norepinephrine release, in turn increasing blood pressure. This may cause muscle tension.

What an interesting question. To my surprise, I couldn't find convincing causal explanations, linking emotional stress and muscle tension.

In one study, study participants were exposed to emotional stress. The authors found a positive correlation between muscle (EMG) activity and blood pressure. They also found a significant positive correlations between stress and norepinephrine (NE) release. The latter plays an important role in blood pressure homeostasis and is released during stress as part of the HPA axis response. These results seem to indicate that stress results in NE release, followed by increase in blood pressure (this is a known stress response). The increase in blood pressure could then lead to muscle tension. However, as the authors explain, the results do not explain whether these associations represent the effect of a general underlying factor (e.g., psychological arousal) or a more direct interdependence of blood pressure and muscular tension. In other words, a correlation was found, but no causal relationships can be deduced.

- Lundberg et al, International J Behav Med (1994); 1(4): 354-70

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the response, is it possible that vasoconstriction cause muscle tension itself? $\endgroup$ Mar 7 '18 at 1:05
  • $\begingroup$ Another possibility may be that when we are stressed we tend to tense our muscles subconsciously e.g lifting our shoulders further to that under stress people tend to shallow breath which results in using chest and neck muscles instead of diaphragm so this subconscious use of the skeletal muscles may be the cause of muscle tension. Do you think any of my above explanations is valid $\endgroup$ Mar 7 '18 at 1:15
  • $\begingroup$ Could all very well be, honestly I can't tell you, that's why this question is so good, as the phenomenon stress induced muscle tension seems so obvious, but proof is yet difficult to find $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Mar 7 '18 at 7:53

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