Have you ever got out of bed, first thing in the morning, and found your neck and/or shoulders feels super, super stiff?
And wondered: ‘How can I be stiff from sleeping?’
In this article I’m sharing one of the most common reasons people wake up with sore neck/shoulder muscles and one super easy tip you can try.
When you’re stressed, or pensive, or just have a habit of holding your shoulders up/tensing up, your muscles may just learn to be tight – to hold that tension.
There’s isn’t just one reason why a person might wake up with tense or sore neck and shoulders, but there is one very common one I’ve found.
If you wake up with a sore neck or shoulders, I share what you can do below – either in the video from our YouTube channel, or the full article below.
Do you ever find yourself lying in bed, feeling your thoughts flying around your brain?
Wishing it would stop so you could go to sleep?
That’s what my thoughts were doing one night when I first noticed it.
As I was frustratedly trying to shut up my brain, I noticed that I was tensing my shoulders around my ears.
I felt tense?
How’s that possible, right?
I checked again, and sure enough my shoulders were up near my ears, but not in a relaxed, gravity’s-got-a-hold-of-them kind of way.
Now, I’d never noticed this before.
As an experiment, I took a deep breath, and tried to relax.
Weirdly enough, as I exhaled and focused on ‘letting go of everything’, my head actually sunk into the pillow, and my shoulders relaxed away from my ears.
‘That’s weird,’ I thought. ‘Good thing I caught it.’
Trying again to fall asleep, my thoughts again started racing around my head.
I checked my neck and shoulders, and guess what?
My neck and shoulders had tensed up again.
Paying attention to it, I noticed – especially on days that had been particularly stressful – often I was in bed, falling asleep, tension my neck, shoulders and sometimes even my jaw.
Was it just me, or was this something that happened to everyone?
I started asking my clients who were waking up with neck pain, to check their neck and shoulders in the evening as they fell asleep.
Turns out, it wasn’t just me.
Not only that, but when my clients started letting go of those muscles, they also weren’t waking up with stiff, sore necks as much anymore.
It seemed to be linked to habit – tensing your muscles during the day, especially if it was a stressful day, meant they were more likely to be tensing their muscles while they were falling asleep, without realising it.
If you’re waking up with a stiff neck and shoulders, here’s how you can check if you’re tensing them up as you fall asleep (and what you can do about it):
Do You Hold Tension While You Sleep?
This is how you find the answer:
Tonight, when you’re in bed, trying to fall asleep, use this method to check your muscles for tension.
First, do a quick body scan. Do you feel tight anywhere? Are you pulling your shoulders up, head up, or clenching your jaw?
If you’re not sure, don’t worry that’s okay.
Next: take a nice, slow deep breath in (try to count to four).
As you exhale, let go of your head, your neck, your shoulders, and your face (I know, it sounds weird, but you’d be surprised how many people scrunch up their face when they’re not thinking about it).
You could also check hands, feet, and hips.
Imagine you’re letting your whole body – especially head, neck and shoulders – sink into your pillow and mattress.
Now, did you feel your head sink lower into the pillow? Did your shoulders drop? Or did anything else feels a little heavier in your bedding?
If you answer yes to any of these questions – you’re holding tension without realising it.
And it’s probably not the first time; nor will it be the last.
Check in with yourself a couple more times as you’re falling asleep. If you were holding the tension without realising it before, it’s likely a bit of an unconscious habit. You’ll probably find your body tenses up again when you’re not paying attention.
By doing it a few times as you fall asleep, to start teaching your brain and body that holding that muscle tension isn’t necessary.
But don’t do this…
You should be doing this a few times a night if you notice you have tension, to try and re-teach your body how to hold it.
That said, don’t expect yourself to stop tensing up right away.
I’ve had clients keep themselves awake because they kept checking.
Accept that it will probably take a little while for you to re-train your body.
Why Does This Happen?
When I tell clients this, they often ask, okay, why am I tensing in bed when I should be my most relaxed?
Usually muscle tension is a habit.
If you’re tensing your muscles all day, you’re teaching your muscles that tensing up is normal.
When you’re stressed, muscles tighten up as a reflex.
Or, if you’re sitting at a desk and your head is forward of your body, or shoulders are rounded, your neck and shoulders tense up because they’re having to work harder than if you were in better alignment.*
If you can work on your breathing to reduce the stress you feel, and improve your posture while seated (if you’re sitting/at a computer/at a desk while you work), you’ll start teaching your muscles they don’t need to be tensing all the time.
You might then find it easier to relax at night, and not wake up sore and stiff in the morning.
Your Next Steps
Try the breathe-and-sink technique tonight, as you’re falling asleep, to see if you’re holding tension right before you fall asleep.
If you do, notice where did you find that you could let go? Where were you holding tension?
And then, in the morning, did you feel like you slept differently, or woke up any less tight, stiff or sore than you usually do?
I’d love to know what you find so please share your results in the comments.
As mentioned above, if you’re stressed & shallow breathing, you’re tensing, and if you’re sitting with poor posture your muscles will be tensing.
For that reason I wanted to share two resources we have that can help you with these things: our breathing visualisation and our free desk posture checklist.
Our Breathing Visualisation
When you breathe deeply, you stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is important for our relaxation response and is very good for reducing the stress response in our body.
Our breathing visualisation is as little as £2, and you can download it to your phone or tablet and listen to it while you fall asleep.
In it, I walk you through breathing into your diaphragm, how to relax the diaphragm with each breath, which will help you relax your neck, shoulders, upper back and even head and face muscles.
Deep breathing is not only good for relaxing muscles and improving your relaxation, but also can help you fall asleep more quickly as it gives you something to focus on other than the millions of things on your to-do list!
Free Desk Posture Checklist
Most of our clients kind of ‘know’ they need to have better posture, but feel like good posture is really uncomfortable, or it seems to create more muscle problems than it helps, or it feels impossible to have that ideal posture all day (I mean, hours and hours? For real? Slouching is so much more comfortable!)
If any of this sounds familiar, you should definitely check out the free desk posture checklist I created.
It’s a printable checklist with a 7-minute training video.
It shows you:
- what good posture is (and isn’t) – because most people who get pain or discomfort in ‘good posture’ aren’t actually in good posture
- a checklist covering each part of your body so you know exactly how to position yourself
- why you shouldn’t try to have good posture the whole day when you get started
- what your ‘one step closer’ posture is, and how to find it, vs going straight into ‘perfect alignment’ (and why perfect alignment is sooooo uncomfortable)
Good posture while you’re sitting is actually one of the simplest ways to reduce any muscle tension in your upper body. You may more or less ‘know’ what you should be doing when it comes to good posture, knowing doesn’t always equal doing.
I’d wager that if you get this free checklist and print it and put it up next to where you sit you’ll be much more likely to DO better posture, and help any neck or shoulder tension you usually develop while working.