Tension — in your face or other areas of the body such as the neck and shoulders — is a natural occurrence in response to emotional or physical stress.

As a human, you’re equipped with a “fight or flight system.” Your body responds to severe stress by releasing hormones that activate your sympathetic nervous system. This causes your muscles to contract — ready to do battle or run away.

If you’re stressed for a long period of time, your muscles can remain contracted or partially contracted. Eventually, this tension may lead to discomfort.

There are several common symptoms of facial tension, including:

Facial tension headaches

It is believed that stress triggers tension headaches — the most common type of headache. Tension headache pain includes:

  • dull or aching pain
  • a feeling of tightness across the forehead, the sides of the head, and/or the back of the head

There are two main types of tension headaches: episodic tension headaches and chronic tension headaches. Episodic tension headaches can last as little as 30 minutes or as long as a week. Frequent episodic tension headaches happen less than 15 days per month for a minimum of three months and can become chronic.

Chronic tension headaches can last hours and might not go away for weeks. To be considered chronic, you must get 15 or more tension headaches per month for at least three months.

If tension headaches are becoming a disruption in your life or if you find yourself taking medication for them more than twice a week, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Stress and anxiety can cause facial tension. Anxiety can also make symptoms of facial tension worse.

If you have anxiety, it may be harder for facial tension to go away naturally. People with anxiety can also heighten the feeling of discomfort by worrying about the tension:

  • Facial tingling can be a symptom of anxiety as well as a stimulator for heightened anxiety. Although a tingling or burning face is an unusual symptom of anxiety, it’s not rare and can be attributed to a number of factors including hyperventilation. If it occurs, the person experiencing it often fears that it’s linked to multiple sclerosis (MS) or another neuromuscular or medical disorder, and that fear heightens the anxiety and tension.
  • Face reddening or flushing can be a visible symptom of anxiety caused by dilation of the capillaries in the face. Although typically temporary, it can last for a few hours or more.
  • Lip damage can be a result of anxiety. Anxiety might cause you to bite or chew on your lip to the point of bleeding. Mouth breathing that may happen when you’re anxious can dry the lips out.

When stressed, you might tighten your facial and jaw muscles or clench your teeth. This can result in pain or temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), a “catch all” term for chronic jaw pain. Physical stress on the face and neck muscles around the temporomandibular joint — the hinge that connects your jaw to the temporal bones of your skull — causes TMJ. TMJ disorders are sometimes referred to as TMD.

If you think you have TMJ, go see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and, if necessary, a treatment recommendation. While waiting for your doctor’s appointment, consider:

1. Stress relief

Stress causes facial tension, so reducing stress will relieve facial tension. The first step in stress reduction is the adoption a healthy lifestyle including:

2. Relaxation techniques

You might find any number of techniques to be effective stress and/or tension relievers for you, including:

3. Facial exercises for tension relief

There are more than 50 muscles that make up your facial structure. Exercising them may help reduce facial tension.

Here are some face exercises that can relieve facial tension:

  • Happy face. Smile as wide as you can, hold for the count of 5 and then relax. Do 10 repetitions (reps) per set of exercises.
  • Slack jaw. Let your jaw fully relax and your mouth hang open. Bring the tip of your tongue to the highest point of the roof of your mouth. Hold this position for a count of 5, and then ease your jaw back into a resting closed mouth position. Do 10 reps per set.
  • Brow furrow. Wrinkle your forehead by arching your eyebrows as high as possible. Hold this position for a count of 15, and then let it go. Do 3 reps per set.
  • Eye squeeze. Close your eyes tightly and hold this position for 20 seconds. Then, make your eyes go blank: Completely let go of all the little muscles around your eyes and stare expressionless for 15 seconds. Do 3 reps per set.
  • Nose scrunch. Wrinkle your nose, flare your nostrils, and hold for the count of 15 and then release. Do 3 reps per set.

4. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT, a type of goal-oriented talk therapy, takes a practical approach to teaching you to manage the stress that is causing the tension.

5. Biofeedback training

Biofeedback training uses devices to monitor muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure to help you learn how to control certain body responses. You can train yourself to reduce muscle tension, slow your heart rate, and control your breathing.

6. Medication

Your doctor might prescribe anti-anxiety medication to use in conjunction with stress management techniques. The combination may be more effective than either treatment is alone.

Tension in your face may be a natural response to emotional or physical stress. If you are experiencing facial tension, consider trying some simple stress reduction techniques such as facial exercises.

If the tension lasts for a long period of time, is progressively painful, or continues to occur on a regular basis, you should see your doctor.