By: Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMSC
The first time I practiced Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), I was in my Health Psychology class at Malone University. It was mid-semester and I was stressed, as I often was by that point. My professor introduced us to PMR at what seemed like the most perfectly planned time for students who were overloaded with college work. By the end of the class, I felt relaxed, rejuvenated, and almost like the stress I’d been carrying had been drained out through my toes.
Developed by physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s, this relaxation method helps with stress, insomnia, and pain management. Why does this technique work? Practicing relaxation calms the mind and relaxes the body. Reducing stress can help prevent increases in cortisol in the body. Long-term levels of increased cortisol can lead to all kinds of health problems (diabetes, weakened immune system, GI problems, cardiovascular disease and more!). I would also strongly recommend that anyone who lives in chronic pain to give it a try. Pain often increases muscle tension, which in turn, creates more pain. When muscles are tense, they tighten and increase pressure on our nerves and other tissues, which can make the pain worse. Relaxation can help with the pain-tension cycle.
The primary objective of PMR is to get your body to relax by focusing on breathing and tensing muscles in different areas of the body, progressively moving your way from your head to your feet or vice versa. This creates an increase in body awareness and produces a calming effect on the body. It also helps you focus on the difference between muscle tension and relaxation, allowing the built up tension to be released from the body as you exhale and relax the muscle. And it only takes about 10 minutes! You can do it during a lunch break, right before bed or at the end of a workout, though you need a quiet environment to do it correctly.
To get set up, you can either sit in a chair or lie on the floor and begin by listening to your breathing without changing its natural pattern. Breathe through your nose if you can and place your hands over your stomach and feel your hands rise and fall. Relax your stomach muscles. Take deep, slow breaths. As you breathe out, imagine your tensions are being breathed away. Once you find that your breathing is steady and relaxed, you’ll want to begin the progressive muscle relaxation technique. Again, make sure when you practice PMR that you are in a quiet environment, with no distractions, electronics, or obtrusive sounds, even soft music. And one important thing to note: before rising (if lying down) be sure to get up slowly as rising too quickly may cause you to feel faint. A good reminder is to count down from 5 after opening your eyes.
I prefer to work from the head down because you are able to visualize the stress being slowly pushed out of the body as you move down through the muscle groups. You may choose the opposite, which is absolutely fine. Try to only tense the muscles in each group and not other surrounding muscle groups. This may take practice. Slowly inhale and tense one muscle group, allowing you to fully recognize and feel the tension in those muscles. Hold the tension for 5 to 8 seconds. As you slowly release the tension, feel it flow out of the muscles as you simultaneously exhale. Feel the muscles relax and become loose and limp, while the tension is flowing away. Focus on the difference between tension and relaxation. This will teach you how to voluntarily relax muscles, which is especially important for all the times when your shoulders, neck, or back feel tense throughout the day. Below is a list of the muscle groups that you can progress through. As you become more aware of each muscle group, try breaking them down into smaller groups or tensing and relaxing each side of the body at a time. Let’s get started!
Face – Inhale and tense the muscles of the face, furrowing your eyebrows, scrunching your eyes, and pursing your lips or frowning. Exhale and slowly relax. Feel the tension leaving your body.
Neck, Shoulders & Chest – Inhale and tense the muscles of the neck, shoulders, and chest. Shrug your shoulders upward and squeeze the muscles in your neck. Exhale and relax. Feel the tension leaving your body.
Upper Back – Inhale and tense the muscles of your upper back. Squeeze your scapula together; think about pinching something between them. Exhale and relax. Feel the tension leaving your body.
Upper & Lower Arms – Inhale and tense the muscles of your arms. Straighten your arms in an exaggerated way, squeezing your triceps and tightening your forearms. Exhale and relax. Feel the tension leaving your body.
Hands – Inhale and make a fist with your hands. Pretend you’re trying to squeeze all the juice out of an orange. Exhale and relax. Feel the tension leaving your body.
Abdominals & Lower Back – Inhale and tighten your abdominals and lower back. Pull in your TVA (belly button to spine). Exhale and relax. Feel the tension leaving your body.
Glutes, Quadriceps & Hamstrings – Inhale and tighten the muscles of the upper legs, your glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings. If you are seated you may need to straighten your legs. Exhale and relax. Feel the tension leaving your body.
Lower Legs & Feet – Lastly, inhale and tighten the muscles of your lower legs and feet, curling your toes and tightening your calves. Do not tense your feet muscles so hard that your feet cramp. Exhale and relax. Feel the tension leaving your body.
If there is any part of your body that still feels tense, return to that area inhaling and tightening, then exhaling and relaxing slowly until you feel the tension dissolve. Take a few more deep breaths. And when you are ready open your eyes and slowly rise.