Note: This is the fourth post in a series on stress relief. I recommend that you read the earlier posts for a strong foundation. They cover the stress response from a physical, mental, and emotional perspective, the benefits and practice of diaphragmatic breathing, and our culture’s problem with stress pride.
Feel Better Now
Today, we’re getting to some major practice: progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). PMR involves the tension and release of muscle groups systematically, allowing the body to become deeply relaxed.
When it comes to stress relief, progressive muscle relaxation is an easy win.
What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ve been living with tension and stress, doing this even once will make you feel immensely better. It’s not like working out, where you have to wait for results.
Progressive muscle relaxation offers immediate relief.
As someone born utterly lacking in patience (and having little luck developing it), I like it things that work RIGHT NOW. Practice is a no-brainer when you feel better every time.
Over time, consistent practice means your body holds less tension, and you’ll be able to dissolve tension that does arise in nearly any situation.
Stressball Teenager Discovers Progressive Muscle Relaxation
I was first introduced to PMR at the ripe old age of 17 when I nearly had a nervous breakdown. (Sadly, that’s not an exaggeration.) I was 100% committed to getting of Dubuque, Iowa. While Forbes named Dubuque both the #1 Small City to Raise a Family and the #14 Best Small Places for Business and Careers recently (go, Dubuque!), the 80’s were a different story, particularly for a teenage girl who longed to see the world.
Senior year was the last chance to realize my Get the Hell Out Plan. I pushed to do everything possible to get into my #1 college choice: Northwestern University.
I applied early – and only to Northwestern. All my eggs in one basket. I rationalized this by saying that I’d apply to other schools if I got rejected, but whom was I kidding? If I didn’t get in, I’d be devastated.
While everyone else angled for early release and took fun electives, I loaded a full schedule of eight challenging classes – and as many extracurriculars as I could possibly fit. I survived on 4-5 hours of sleep a night and had nightmares of working at a gas station for the rest of my life. None of this pressure came from my parents. I did it all to myself.
Then one day, I broke. I went outside between classes to blow off steam by screaming – except this time, I couldn’t stop.
I just kept screaming. And screaming. And screaming. I stood outside that December day, seeing my breath shoot out of my mouth like a steam engine as my voice pierced the cold.
When I finally stopped, I knew I was in trouble. I marched myself to my counselor’s office and turned myself in. I was falling, failing, and completely out of control.
It was the start of quite a journey (whose story I’ll save for another day). What’s relevant now is that the first thing my amazing psychologist, Dr. Barbara Woodward, introduced me to was progressive muscle relaxation.
That first night, when I popped that cassette in my boombox and followed the instructions, I could feel the tension drain from my tightly wound-up body. For the first time in over a year, I fell asleep almost immediately and slept soundly.
I was a believer.
Why Progressive Muscle Relaxation Is the Starting Point
Once you’re familiar with diaphragmatic breathing (go back and review if you need to), I usually recommend that people start with PMR for a couple of reasons.
First, if you’re really tense and stressed out, PMR’s immediate relief feels amazing.
Second, PMR takes advantage of the contrast effect. Lots of us habitually carry so much tension that we don’t even know what truly relaxed muscles feel like. Tensing muscles first makes the contrast apparent so you understand the difference – and you get evidence that you can voluntarily produce this relaxation response for yourself.
The Benefits of Deep Relaxation Techniques Such as PMR
To begin, PMR requires that you do diaphragmatic breathing, so you get all those benefits.
Progressive muscle relaxation has many profound benefits of its own. For the immune system, deep relaxation techniques increase helper cell activity, natural killer cells, and antibodies to ward off viruses and infection. It can alleviate pain, often as well or better than medication.
Deep relaxation practice bolsters the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. It lowers blood pressure long-term, improves blood flow to the heart, and reduces the severity of angina attacks. PMR can lower cholesterol. Asthmatics experience less emotional upset and less airway constriction, to name a few of the documented physical benefits.
Some of the mental and emotional benefits include: improved concentration, better mood control, increased self-esteem, increased spontaneity and creativity, decreased generalized (and phobic) anxiety, and reduced frequency and duration of panic attacks.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Progressive muscle relaxation can dramatically improve your physical, emotional, and mental health.
To get the aforementioned bennies and to activate the relaxation response in stressful circumstances, you have to consistently practice PMR.
- Practice daily, at least once, preferably twice. If you fall asleep, sit for practice so you learn and integrate the technique. (If you have insomnia, you can listen at bedtime to fall asleep, but make sure to practice at another time for learning purposes.) Optimally, practice at the same time every day.
- Find a quiet location and get comfortable. This is your time to feel good – so sit or lie somewhere comfortable, where you won’t be disturbed. Fully support your head and neck (i.e., the chair should have a high back). Loosen tight clothing, remove jewelry, and get a blanket if you’d like.
- Adopt a calm, present mindset. Let your brain know it can take a break for a bit, and give yourself permission to release worries for this time. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the practice. Release any expectations of how it’s ‘supposed to’ be and allow whatever happens to happen.
Know that some days it’ll go better than others, and that’s perfectly fine. As Woody Allen said, “80% of life is just showing up.” Show up for your practice. Be observant and interested in what happens, without judgment or force.
The Practice of Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Once you’re settled in a quiet place and comfortable position, you’ll go through a series of muscle groups in order. Here’s the pattern:
- Tense all the muscles in that group for 10 seconds. You may shake, or you may lift that part of the body off the ground or chair. That’s fine.
- Release all the tension and notice that relaxed feeling for 15-20 seconds. Let the body part sink into the chair, floor, sofa, or bed, completely relaxed, as if it’s made of lead. Focus your attention on the sensations you feel in that body part.
- Repeat, if necessary. Some areas are typically more tense than others (e.g., shoulders, neck, jaw). Repeat the tension and release for these if you notice tension remains after the first time.
- Scan previous areas to ensure tension hasn’t returned. If it has, allow it to release. If you’re unable to do this solely by focusing on the relaxation, tense the area again and release.
- Remain focused and concentrate on what’s happening. What do you notice? How do you experience the tension? The relaxation? Do you feel a marked contrast?
- Relaxed Position: Find in a comfortable position with your head and neck supported.
- Easy diaphragmatic breathing: Take several slow, easy breaths into your belly. Use this breathing throughout the exercise.
- Right hand and wrist: Tense your right hand and wrist, making a fist and hold for 10 seconds. (It’s okay if your hand shakes.) Release the tension, allowing the hand to sink into the chair, sofa, bed, or floor. Observe (and enjoy) the feeling of relaxation for 20 seconds Follow the same process for all muscle groups below.
- Right arm: Forearm, bicep, and tricep – make a muscle pose. (Hold for 10, fully release and experience the relaxation for at least 20 seconds.)
- Left hand and wrist
- Left arm
- Scan both arms: Scan for tension and release any you notice. If you can’t drain it through focus, tense that area again and release.
- Right lower leg: Foot, calf, and shin area
- Upper right leg: Quadricep and hamstring
- Left lower leg
- Left upper leg
- Scan both legs: Release any tension through attention or another tense/relax sequence.
- Buttocks, inner and outer thighs
- Lower back
- Abdomen and chest
- Scan arms, legs, buttocks, back, and abdomen and release any tension
- Shoulders and upper back: Tense your shoulders, pulling the shoulder blades together in the back as if pinching something between them – hold and release.
- Shoulders 2: Tense shoulders by pulling up toward ears – hold and release
- Throat and neck
- Jaw: Clench your jaw – without grinding your teeth together. Hold, then release the jawbone so your lower jaw hangs slack, mouth open, tongue relaxed and down.
- Face: Scrunch your mouth, nose, eyes, and forehead tightly and hold. Completely release so that lips are soft and slightly apart, face is slack, forehead is smooth, and eyelids are soft, and eyes are quiet, unmoving beneath the lids. Make sure neck, throat, and jaw are also relaxed.
- Scan shoulders, chest, abdomen, and back. Release any tension.
- Scan arms and legs. Release any tension.
- Scan entire body, releasing any tension and getting to an even deeper state of relaxation.
- “I am calm”: Say “I am calm” silently several times as you feel the wave of relaxation moving throughout your body.
- Enjoy the feeling of relaxation for as long as you wish.
- Reconnecting: Before you get up, wiggle your fingers and toes and move your arms and legs a bit.
- Stand very slowly, especially if lying down. Your blood pressure is much lower in a deeply relaxed state, so you must give your body time to adjust.
The first few times you do this, expect that it will take about 30 minutes. Once you’re used to the routine, it should take about 15-20 minutes.
Note: The reason you say “I am calm” several times when in this state of deep relaxation is to strongly associate the phrase with the feeling. Eventually, after dedicated practice, saying this phrase will automatically release much of the tension in your body (which will come in very handy during stressful times). Pretty cool.
If you’d like a free MP3 recording of the progressive muscle relaxation script to use for your practice, see the note at the end of the post.
Embrace the Relief
Once you feel how wonderful it is to be relaxed, you’ll be motivated to practice progressive muscle relaxation. Do it every day, at least once. Concentrate on the exercise and let go of any expectations or judgment. Get curious about what’s happening in your body and what you’re able to do. Last but certainly not least, if you experience tension during the day, tense and release those muscle groups – you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel right away!
Most of all, ENJOY!
To receive your free MP3 of this progressive muscle relaxation exercise:
- Sign up for my mailing list (below or top right) if you haven’t already done so
- Include your request in the Comments section (below).
I’d love to hear about your experiences with progressive muscle relaxation, as well as any questions you have, so please include them in the comments.
As always, if you liked this or know someone who’d benefit, I’d appreciate your sharing this post. Thanks so much!