The idea of Progressive Muscle Relaxation was developed over 50 years ago by Dr. Edmund Jacobson. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a technique to achieve a deep state of relaxation by tensing a muscle for a few seconds and then releasing it.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation can be particularly useful for people who have anxiety that manifests in muscle tension. You may have times when you notice tightness in your neck or shoulders and this may be a cue for you that you're particularly stressed or worried about something. Progressive muscle relaxation has also been found to be effective for relieving more than just anxiety, it is beneficial for relieving high blood pressure, tension headaches and insomnia.
Progressive muscle relaxation is an approach to relaxation in which systematically relaxing your muscles helps to quiet your mind and release tension from your body. Engaging in this exercise can take between 15-20 minutes and should be practiced daily in order to achieve lasting effects.
Tips to get the most out of your relaxation exercise
- Find a quiet location to practice where you won't be distracted.
- Practice at the same time each day. You may choose to do it right when you wake up or right before you go to sleep, but doing it at the same time each day helps to generalize the effects of the exercise. If you choose to practice this exercise right before bed, it could be part of your healthy sleep routine.
- Find a comfortable position. Make sure your entire body (including your head, if possible) is supported. Sometimes you may find you have to do this sitting up and that is ok, but try to have as much of your body supported as possible as this will help you to be comfortable. If you're tired, lying down may not be beneficial as you may end up falling asleep!
- Loosen any tight clothing so you are as comfortable as possible.
- Practice mindfulness while engaging in this exercise.
How to practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation
As you go through each muscle, keep in mind you want to tense each muscle group hard, but not so hard you're straining yourself, for approximately 10 seconds and then let go of the tension suddenly.
When working on a particular muscle group, allow the other muscles in your body to remain relaxed.
- Begin by taking in five abdominal breaths, counting to five as you inhale, stopping for two at the top and exhaling for the count of seven. As you exhale, imagine that stress and tension is floating away from your body.
- Clench your fists and hold for 10 seconds, then release and allow yourself to relax for 15 to 20 seconds.
- Tighten your biceps by bringing your arms up towards your shoulders and tightening your bicep muscle. Hold for 10 seconds, then release and allow yourself to relax for 15 to 20 seconds.
- Tighten your triceps, which are underneath your upper arm, by extending your arms straight out and locking your elbows, hold for 10 seconds, then release and allow yourself to relax for 15 to 20 seconds.
- Tense the muscles in your forehead by raising your eyebrows as far up as you can... hold that and then release.
- Tense the muscles around your eyes by clenching your eyelids shut tightly. Hold.... and relax.
- Tighten your jaw by opening your mouth widely so you stretch the muscles around your jaw. Hold... and relax. Imagine your jaw muscles becoming relaxed as you do this.
- Tighten the muscles in the back of your neck by pulling your head way back (carefully so you do not injure yourself) as if you were going to touch your head to your back. Focus on the muscles in your neck while doing this. Hold this tension for 10 seconds, and then relax.
- Tighten your shoulders by raising them up as if you were going to touch your ears. Hold... and relax. Imagine all the tension in your shoulders floating away.
- Take in a few deep breaths, exhaling stress and tension and allowing yourself to fall deeper and deeper into relaxation.
- Tighten the muscles around your shoulder blades by pushing your shoulder blades back as if you were trying to touch them together. Hold... and relax.
- Tighten your stomach muscles by sucking in your stomach. Hold... and relax.
- Tighten your lower back by arching it up (carefully to avoid injury or skip this muscle if you have lower back pain). Hold that tension for 10 seconds and then relax.
- Tighten your buttocks by pulling them together. Hold... and relax.
- Tighten the muscles in your thighs all the way down to your knees. Hold... and relax. Imagine a wave of relaxation spreading throughout your thighs.
- Tighten your calf muscles by pulling your toes toward you. Hold... and relax.
- Tighten your feet by curling your toes. Hold... and relax.
- Take in three deep breaths, exhaling stress and tension with each breath. Scan your body for any residual tension and if needed, repeat the progressive muscle relaxation exercise in that area.
- Once you feel all the tension has left your body, imagine a wave of relaxation spread over your whole body starting at the top of your head and going all the way down to your toes.
Information adapted from Bourne, E.J. (2015). The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (6th ed). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Hopefully this exercise has left you feeling peaceful, relaxed and no longer tense. Practicing this exercise regularly for 15-20 minutes each day will help this to become second nature for you and you will be able to generalize the effects to other aspects of your life.
Don't worry if it feels weird or uncomfortable at first, you're just learning what to do! As you practice, you won't need to review the instructions because you'll already know your muscle groups and you will be able to engage in this exercise without any prompting.