Can stress cause swollen lymph nodes?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated January 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you noticed the presence of swollen lymph nodes along your neck or armpits? This can be a potential trigger for nervousness in some people. However, swollen lymph nodes can occur for a variety of reasons, and this swelling doesn’t necessarily mean that you have something serious. Aside from infections, anxiety and stress may also lead to swollen lymph nodes in some cases.

Below, we’ll discuss what lymph nodes are, what may cause them to become swollen, and the relationship between stress and swollen lymph nodes.

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Experiencing anxiety disorder symptoms?

What are lymph nodes?

Lymph nodes are small organs located throughout the body and are part of the immune system. They can help to defend the body against illness and disease by filtering out harmful substances and supporting your overall immune responses. According to the Cleveland Clinic, everyone has hundreds of lymph nodes throughout their body, but the most well-known are in the neck, armpits, and groin. Lymph nodes often store white blood cells, which can fight off harmful bacteria to keep the body healthy and safe from many common illnesses.

Exploring the physiology: Lymph nodes and your immune response

When the body is subject to stress or infection, the lymph nodes can swell and become larger than usual. Symptoms of swollen lymph nodes, bodily strain, or immunodeficiency may vary. For example, lymph nodes can become tender to the touch, or you may experience symptoms of fever, congestion, sore throat, headache, lightheadedness, fainting, high blood pressure, or malaise.

In most cases, lymph nodes can return to their normal size once the body has fought off the source of infection or disease. However, if you start feeling symptoms such as an accelerated or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, or excessive fatigue, you might consider seeing a doctor for further assessment. You may also choose to see a doctor if you’re experiencing chronically swollen lymph nodes with no obvious physical cause or exposure.

What is the scientific link between swollen lymph nodes and stress?

Stress and anxiety can sometimes lead to swollen lymph nodes, but the connection isn’t fully understood.

When a person experiences stress, they may have a weakened immune system, which can make them more susceptible to infections, leading to swollen lymph nodes. Also, a person experiencing anxiety may sweat more and become dehydrated, which can also lead to slightly swollen lymph nodes.
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Stress, anxiety, and swollen lymph nodes

If you think you have swollen lymph nodes, you may benefit from speaking with a healthcare provider. Sometimes, people try to assess their own lymph nodes, but a healthcare provider has the training and experience to distinguish between a sensation of enlargement and truly swollen lymph nodes. If you do have swollen lymph nodes, a healthcare provider may order tests to try to determine the cause.  

If they don’t find a medical cause of swollen lymph nodes, you may be experiencing stress and anxiety, which can cause a variety of other symptoms. Physical symptoms that could be indicative of anxiety may include fatigue, lethargy, unexplained or persistent physical pain, muscle tension, soreness, and gastrointestinal distress. Individuals experiencing anxiety and stress may feel both physically and mentally exhausted, even if they haven't performed any strenuous activities. This may be due to the taxing nature of anxiety.

Stress and anxiety can lead to a variety of mental and behavioral symptoms as well. Common behavioral symptoms can include changes in appetite and trouble sleeping or excessive sleep. Other symptoms may include irritability, excessive worrying, and nervousness.

How to treat stress and anxiety 

If you're experiencing episodes of chronic stress and manifestations of anxiety, there are a variety of evidence-based treatment options that may help. You might explore different options to find a combination that works best for you. The following are just a few strategies you might try.

Exercise

If you're feeling stressed out, you may try incorporating exercise into your daily routine—even if you haven’t done it regularly before. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise leads to the release of endorphins, one of the body’s “feel good” neurotransmitters, which may boost your mood. Also, exercise may redirect or interrupt negative thought patterns caused by stress or anxiety.

Nutrition 

Other lifestyle changes that may help with stress and anxiety may include eating a more healthful, well-rounded diet. Research suggests that nutritious foods may improve cognitive functioning, which may, in turn, lead to reduced stress. Aside from incorporating more nutritious foods into your diet, you may benefit from reducing your use of alcohol and other substances. Despite the temporary relaxation often brought about by alcohol, research shows that alcohol can actually increase anxiety for many people. 

Sleep

When you’re feeling high-stress levels, it may help to prioritize sleep more than you normally would. Research suggests that high-quality sleep can increase cognitive functioning during the day, which may lead to reduced stress if you’re able to be more productive. 

To improve your sleep, you may find it helpful to engage in rigorous exercise during the day. However, it may be best to avoid exercise within two hours of going to bed in order to prepare your body and mind for rest. Also, according to Harvard Medical School, it may help to reduce your use of screens before bed, as screens tend to emit blue light that can keep you awake at night.  

If you’re considering implementing some of these lifestyle changes for stress, you might consider starting small. This may help you to avoid becoming discouraged if you don’t meet all your goals. Also, if something isn’t working for you, you might try some other strategies to reduce stress and anxiety. You can also speak with a healthcare provider, who may recommend medication temporarily if needed.

Anxiety medication

If you're experiencing anxiety, medication prescribed by a doctor may help to manage your symptoms. Everyone can react differently to different medications, so it may take a few tries to find an option that works best for you. It’s recommended that you not begin medication without speaking with a physician about your medical history and any other medications you take. In addition to assessing your health and possibly prescribing medication, a doctor may recommend therapy to help reduce your stress level. 

Therapy for stress and anxiety

Whether you experience mild, moderate, or severe stress and anxiety, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed therapist. If stress makes it difficult to see a therapist in the office at this time, you might consider online therapy. With online therapy, you can discuss your symptoms of stress with a therapist from the comfort of home or anywhere with an internet connection. You can communicate with a therapist via phone, videoconferencing, or live chat at a time that works for your schedule.

Research shows that online therapy is effective for a variety of mental health challenges. One study published in 2017 found that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy was effective for generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other conditions.

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Experiencing anxiety disorder symptoms?

Takeaway

Swollen lymph nodes can sometimes be the result of physiological symptoms of anxiety. If you think you are experiencing swollen lymph nodes, it may be helpful to speak with a healthcare provider to rule out any potential infections or other physical causes. If a doctor cannot identify a physical cause, you may be experiencing stress or anxiety. If this is the case, you may benefit from trying some evidence-based stress-reduction strategies, such as exercise and better sleep hygiene. 

You may also find it helpful to speak with a licensed therapist, whether in your community or online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has training and experience treating stress and anxiety, regardless of the cause. Take the first step toward stress reduction and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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