8 Ways to address tension in the jaw and neck

One of the side effects of anxiety can be severe muscle tension. I used to get it really bad, with an aching neck, jaw, and face that felt I was wearing a mask of tension.

The tension I felt most of all is in my jaw and tongue. This resulted in me having some minor speech problems. I would talk too fast with my anxiety, stumble, mumble words. The fear of which makes me more anxious.

I have since reduced the severity of this tension so below I have outlined a few ideas on how to address this problem both temporarily and permanently.

Just one note before I go on. Problems in this area can be due to the joint and/or the muscles.

For me, I think it’s the muscles, and therefore the following advice is more suited to treating that issue.


The most obvious but it should not be overlooked. You may have tried this already too. But massage for specific muscle tension and anxiety can work really well.

I have found that the source of jaw tension for me was in the back, through the shoulders and into the neck to where the tension concentrated.

If you have a partner ask them to give you a massage. They don’t have to be an expert because the key to a good massage is communication. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, and make sure you give feedback often.

Most people when staring out with massage don’t push hard enough, as such it doesn’t really make a lot if difference.

It’s about communicating your boundaries, making your partner aware of what you want will help them become more effective. Making the massage more enjoyable but also reaching deep enough to make a difference.

Avoid the chill

What can make muscles seem tighter is the cold. I tend to feel it rather keenly. The autumn and winter months are the worst. Be sure to wrap up well. Perhaps more than other people would.

The most vulnerable place seems to be the back the head and neck. So protect this place most of all from the cold wind which seems to enter through the base of the skull.

Wear scarfs, t-shirt with collars, a buff or snood. Also prevent heat from escaping by wearing a hat.

A temporary measure you can try is to place a warm towel over your face and neck to relax the muscles.

Food and magnesium

Magnesium (Mg) has a large number of different functions in the body. It has a role in the creation of energy, the neuromuscular function and neurotransmitter synthesis. [1]

The trouble is our diet is chronically short in this essential mineral, and it causes a number of different problems.[2,3,4]

A lack of magnesium can be a factor in the problem of tense or twitching muscles, an over active nervous system, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, anxiety and many other effects.

Foods that are high in magnesium include, whole grains, legumes, green leafy veg, tofu, meats, dairy, fruits. The poorest are refined foods.

You may want to consider supplementation until such time your diet changes.

However it can’t be said that Mg cures anxiety and muscle tension because as I like to say. ‘No amount of magnesium will stop you having a negative thought’.

So diet must be used in conjunction with other methods.

Physical activity

Exercise too can help because a lot of feeling can be let out through physical work. Exercise is well known for it’s stress relief [5]. Cardiopulmonary forms like running, resistance training, or activities like sports, martial arts, yoga. Let your emotions out through physical activity, it’s the catharsis of a little discomfort, pain and exertion. A calm peace is what you find afterwards.

It has to be regular, like every day if possible.

Work on the mind

Other ways include working on the mind directly. If there is nothing wrong with the joint, then the cause is with the mind because the mind commands the muscles.

Meditation is well reputed for its ability to deal with anxiety and tension [6]. By observing your own mind and letting those thoughts and feelings wash over you without reacting them. Cultivating a still mind is an asset that can give benefits beyond tension in the jaw.

Self awareness

The problem can be grinding the jaw involuntary, so it has become a habit that you don’t even notice you are doing.

So just becoming more aware of what upsets you, what makes you angry, because that’s the emotion you have bottled inside, so creating the tension.

Noticing when you get angry, where and why can help because then you can take steps to prevent it.

For me I feel deeply, yet I also have a fear of upsetting people. So a part me tries to cork these emotions by stopping my jaw from working, creating tension in the neck and tongue as well. Like someone is strangling me. I notice the tension most when I feel strongly but am not able expressed it.

Another habit that contributed is when feeling upset I try to pull my head back down into my shoulders, like I am trying to make myself smaller. It’s a response to a world that can be upsetting. Trying to run and hide by retreating into my ‘shell’.

It’s no wonder then that tension occurs in the neck and jaw, it’s where the clash of two impulses meet, the desire to express yourself and the fear of doing so.

The real solution if there is one, is addressing these two impulses.

For me it’s reducing those influences that get me upset. So I feel less angry, frustrated and so on.

I spend less time reading the news because it often makes me angry.

Instead I find influences that do the opposite. Inspiring, funny, touching, that provide me with different emotions, those that I am less inclined keep inside.

The other is finding a place where you can express yourself a safe way. This is where a talking therapy can really help. The same with well as exercise (see above), since feeling is both a mind and body sensation.

Punching a pillow, screaming into one, physical activity (see above). Talking it over with someone you trust not to get offended are also possibilities.

Other ideas I have include voice work, perhaps not singing, that could make it worse, but just using your voice, making sound.

The opposite of what I normally do which is to keep quiet.

Finger in the mouth

This is an unusual one I was told by my therapist. It involves placing a finger, far back in the mouth, beyond the last teeth, into the gap between the mandible and the cranium.

Then you bite down.

It won’t hurt because you are not biting down with your teeth. But the effect can be very strong.

It stretches the muscles that surround the Thermo-mandibular joint which become tense when you try to pull the jaw up and back.

It’s not easy to get your finger that far back but it can be done.

Facial yoga

If the problem is with the muscles not the joint, which is the more common problem, then doing stretching exercises with the facial muscles may help.

Can’t say I have done a lot of this but stretching muscles by pulling funny faces can help in the same way stretching other muscles in the body can help relax those muscles.

For more ideas on addressing anxiety and the symptoms it can cause subscribe to this blog.



  1. Jahnen-Dechent W, Ketteler M. Magnesium basics. Clin Kidney J. 2012 Feb 1;5(Suppl 1):i3–14.
  2. Henderson et al (2002) National Diet and NutritionSurvey: adults aged 19 to 64yrs. The Stationary Office. London.
  3. Commission Directive 2008/100/EC on nutrition labelling for foodstuffs as regards recommended daily allowances, energy conversion factors and definitions. Official Journal of the European Union.
  4. Johnson S. The multifaceted and widespread pathology of magnesium deficiency. Med Hypotheses. 2001 Feb;56(2):163-70.
  5. Choices NHS. Exercise to relieve stress – Stress, anxiety and depression – NHS Choices [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2014 Nov 16]. Available from: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/stress-relief-exercise.aspx
  6. Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D. The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2010;78(2):169–83.

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5 thoughts on “8 Ways to address tension in the jaw and neck”

  1. Excellent advice, Richard, thank you! I have tried some of the ways you mention to relieve my neck spasms which is classified as Cervical Dystonia or Spasmodic Torticollis, some with success, although I think I needed to try magnesium supplementation for a longer period. I do eat a healthier diet these days and so I feel the supplementation may not be needed so much now. I have managed to quell my anxiety over the years and feel it has been a valuable period for personal growth too. Strangely it may turn out that my condition is related to a TMJ disorder rather than one of neurological origin. With that in mind I will try to use the technique you mention to relieve tension in the TMJ although I’m a little unsure how to go about it.

    I definitely try and avoid the chill, and my neck is better in the heat, I also feel more relaxed in general so I may at some point, when I can afford it, go and live in a hotter climate, I can but dream!

    I have tried yoga in the past but had to stop as certain poses made my neck worse, I also tried deep mediation and was doing an hour a day in the morning but found it hard to keep up. I may try it again at some point though as it was a very calming experience.

    Massage I have tried and shiatsu really helped me when my neck was like a block of wood, really eased it up in a few weeks and averted some major surgery I was scheduled to have, thank God as it was irreversible and I was told later I shouldn’t have been put forward for it. I’ve learnt some doctors can get a bit trigger happy. :s

    Anyway I’m starting to ramble, excellent information and if you’re able to advise any further on how and where to place the finger for the jaw release that would be wonderful.
    Thanks again

    • Thanks for the feedback Rob. As for the finger in the jaw.
      The best I can describe is to place a finger, say the middle between your teeth and the inside of your mouth/cheek (how you would place a tooth brush).
      Keep pushing back with the finger tip until you reach the back teeth.
      Open you jaw slightly and find the gap behind the teeth.
      Insert the finger, then carefully bite down.
      It does mean stretching your cheek, pushing back your mouth on that side.
      Repeat for both sides.
      I am told by my therapist that the effect can be quite strong.
      Hope this description helps.

      • Hi Richard, excellent thanks for the extra info, that really helps. I’ll give it a go, thanks again fella.

  2. Richard, just tried it and I think Ive got it down now, as you say its quite powerful and even though it doesn’t feel like it at first I can really feel it afterwards. Hopefully, it’ll help me get some more relief in the long run! Top stuff.


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