Reduce Tension with Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Young woman relaxing on floor, focus on hand
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Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a relaxing and effective technique for reducing overall body tension. This simple technique involves tensing and relaxing all of the major muscles in your body in order from your head to your feet.  By tensing your muscles before relaxing them, you enable yourself to relax them more thoroughly after you release, letting go of physical tension more effectively.

Research shows that relaxing your body physically can also release psychological tension and stress, minimizing your stress reactivity and decreasing your experience of chronic stress.  There are other effective ways to minimize psychological and emotional stress, but PMR can off you one more tool to manage stress, which can help you to build your resilience overall.  

As you practice tensing and relaxing all the muscle groups in your body, you can move to a shortened version of this activity, known as Deep Muscle Relaxation, where you rapidly relax your whole body. (When practicing DMR, I like to imagine relaxation streaming from my head to my feet like water being poured, and gently engulfing me.)  As you reduce the tension you carry in your body, your whole being will feel less stress and you will enjoy increased physical and emotional health. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Find Some Time.  Block off at least 15 minutes to begin.  I recommend setting an alarm for yourself, in case you fall asleep. (This will allow you to relax more completely, knowing you won't lose track of time.)  I also recommend finding a private place so you'll feel more comfortable with step #3.
  1. Sit and Make Yourself Comfortable.  After finding a quiet place and several free minutes to practice progressive muscle relaxation, sit or lie down and make yourself comfortable.  It's more effective to stretch out and lie down, but if you don't have room to lie down, sitting in a comfortable chair is fine as well.  Unfold your arms, however, and uncross your legs so that you have easy circulation and your body is able to really relax.
  1. Start With Your Face.  Begin by tensing all the muscles in your face and scalp. Make a tight grimace, close your eyes as tightly as possible, clench your teeth, even move your ears up if you can. Hold this for the count of eight as you inhale.
  2. Let Go of Your Tension.  Now exhale and relax completely. Let your face go completely lax, as though you were sleeping. Feel the tension seep from your facial muscles, and enjoy the feeling.  Take your time and relax completely before you move onto the next step.  You can also repeat this step until your face feels thoroughly relaxed, if you feel you need to.
  3. Move To Your Neck.  Next, completely tense your neck and shoulders, again inhaling and counting to eight. Then exhale and relax.  Again, this step can be repeated until you feel absolutely relaxed in this area, partcilarly because many people carry tension in their neck and shoulder muscles.  Take your time, and let yourself go.
  4. Work Your Way Down.  Continue down your body, repeating the procedure with the following muscle groups:
    • chest
    • abdomen
    • entire right arm
    • right forearm and hand (making a fist)
    • right hand
    • entire left arm
    • left forearm and hand (again, making a fist)
    • left hand
    • buttocks
    • entire right leg
    • lower right leg and foot
    • right foot
    • entire left leg
    • lower left leg and foot
    • left foot
  1. Practice.  Then Abbreviate.  For the shortened version, which includes just four main muscle groups:
    • face
    • neck, shoulders and arms
    • abdomen and chest
    • buttocks, legs and feet
    Quickly focusing on each group one after the other, with practice you can relax your body like ‘liquid relaxation’ poured on your head and it flowed down and completely covered you. You can use progressive muscle relaxation to quickly de-stress any time.

Sources:

Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., & McKay, M. (2008). The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 6th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Seaward, B. L. (2013). Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Wellbeing, 8th Edition. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

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