effect of stress on muscles

Good Stress, Bad Stress And The Effect On Your Muscles

Stress in itself is an interesting concept. For the most part, it is considered in a somewhat negative light, in which too much is thought to be bad for both our health and our general well being. This holds particularly true of life stress, which is known to impact us on both an emotional and cognitive level.

the difference between good stress and bad stress
Credit: Flickr / Firesam!

Comparatively, in the world of health and fitness, stress is essential to promoting the growth and development of new muscle tissue, improving aerobic and anaerobic fitness, and increasing muscle strength. By placing the body under new stressors, it is forced to adapt to cope with the increased demands associated with that stressful experience.

This effectively describes the process of training (and the results of training) in its entirety, and revolves around physical stress – or the stress placed on the physical tissues of the body.

But what people forget is that these two types of stress are not completely separate. Life stress can impact the body’s ability to adapt to physical stress in a very large way, and as such, it can actually impact the physical tissues of the body in a very negative manner.

This holds true for muscle tissue in particular, which is affected in a multitude of ways by both life stress and emotional stressors such as anxiety and depression.

Stress and anxiety leads to hormonal changes

First up, extended periods of stress and anxiety can cause a huge change in the body’s ability to manage hormones effectively. During times of stress, the body sees an increased secretion in the hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands.

In stark comparison to our key anabolic hormones, such as testosterone and growth hormone (which promote the growth, development, and repair of muscle tissue), cortisol is known as a catabolic hormone (as it causes the breakdown of tissue).

Cortisol causes the reductions in protein synthesis, accelerates the conversion of protein to glucose, and inhibits the growth of new tissue within the body. This, in the short term, can make it extremely difficult to see any results from our training, as we are in an environment where both promoting muscle growth AND losing fat becomes extremely difficult.

If we are experiencing long term stress and anxiety, we can actually see the deterioration of our muscle tissue (as our rates of breakdown will far exceed our rate of synthesis) and the rapid accumulation of fat mass – all a result of an increased cortisol secretion.

Stress and anxiety increase muscle tension

Stress and anxiety both cause the hyperactivity of the nervous system. This effectively results in the central nervous system providing heightened neural stimulus to the muscles of the body for prolonged periods of time in response to either stress or anxiety.

This neural stimulus causes the muscle tissue to become hyperactive, a state in which they are constantly under neural tone, and as such maintain a small (yet noticeable) muscular contraction. This phenomenon is known as Neuromuscular Hypertension, and results in the body adapting to this state of hyperactivity, in which the muscle tissue of the body habitually and unconsciously begins to hold this contraction at all times – even during periods without stress or anxiety.

This results in chronic muscle tightness, which can cause noticeable muscular pain and discomfort both during movement and at rest. Those muscle that typically experience this pain are around the neck and jaw, the lower back, and even the diaphragm, which can further result in laboured breathing if left unaddressed for prolonged periods of time. And to top it off, this excessive tightness can further development into unwanted chronic pain.

This increased neural tightness can further limit movement, and increase our risk of developing a training related muscular injury, and may also cause unwanted postural deviations.

What can we do about it? The role of Diaphragmatic Breathing

So it becomes quite apparent that living in a state of chronic stress and anxiety can lead to both chronic pain, limited movement, and unwanted postural deviations, while also impacting our ability to recover from training, burn fat, and build new muscle tissue.

So what can we do about it?

Effectively, we need to limit our stress response when we are feeling either anxious or stressed. While there are a number to do this effectively, one simple trick is to practice Diaphragmatic Breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing is essentially the process of taking 2-3 minutes’ worth of extremely deep breaths right into your stomach. This promotes the activation of the diaphragm, which causes a drop in both heart rate and blood pressure, while also activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

By causing this neural response, we see a further reduction in neural stimulus to the muscle tissue, which causes relaxation and release of that muscle tissue, while also causing a slight reduction in cortisol secretion.

As a result, by practicing Diaphragmatic Breathing during times of stress and anxiety, we can reduce the negative stress response associated, limiting the nasty effects to our muscle tissue.


Stress and anxiety can have a seriously nasty effect on our muscle tissue, leading to both chronic tightness and muscle deterioration. As such, we should try to limit the negative effects of stress when they occur through the practice of diaphragmatic breathing – while this is by no means a cure all, it can go a long way to improving our stress response!


About the author

Matt Hunt, writer for Protein Promo, has a masters degree in exercise science and is an exercise scientist specialising in rehabilitation and athletic development. Training clients in a one-on-one setting has provided him with a practical understanding of the various aspects of the health and fitness industry.

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