What Is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

Learn more about a technique to relieve muscle tension

Ever felt the chronic pain associated with tired, knotted muscles? What about the shooting spasm that can accompany anxiety or worry? Progressive muscle relaxation can help!

According to staff at Mayo Clinic, progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that focuses on the slow, steady contraction (shortening or tensing) of a muscle, followed by a gradual relaxation phase where the muscle is lengthened and released. It’s an approach that works on groups of muscles in succession.

Regularly practicing progressive muscle relaxation causes your body to quickly become used to the sensations associated with your muscles changing from purposely clenched and contracted to a relaxed and more pliable state. It’s a simple technique that’s been used for almost a century.

Techniques

There’s a general technique to follow. It’s easy to learn and will become second nature with time and experience.

Counselor and stress management specialist Elizabeth Scott, M.S., suggests finding a quiet spot, some privacy and some spare moments in the day. Beginning with the face, she suggests you begin by contracting the tiny muscles around your eyes, nose and mouth so that you form a tight grimace. Scott recommends holding the tension to the count of eight, exhaling at that point and then allowing the entire facial area to become loose and free.

She then encourages moving down the body, completely tensing the neck, jaw and shoulders, holding for eight seconds, then releasing. This is followed by efforts in the chest, abdomen, arms, hands, fingers, buttocks, legs, feet and toes, until all muscle groups have been contracted and relaxed.

If time is of the essence, Scott proposes a shortened version where you apply muscle relaxation techniques to only a few targeted areas, like your face/neck, arm, shoulders/abdomen, chest/buttocks, legs and feet. Your larger muscle areas are contracted at once, rather than smaller groups of muscles. The effect may feel like the gentle unraveling of a tightly sprung coil.

Benefits

A 2009 study from The International Institute for the Advanced Study of Psychotherapy and Applied Mental Health indicates progressive muscle relaxation provides excellent self-help for recurring insomnia. The Counseling and Psychological Services office at Northwestern University lists the wide benefits of progressive muscle relaxation, including:

  • Reducing tension headaches
  • Lessening the impact of gastrointestinal disorders
  • Decreasing muscle tension, leading to reduced anxiety and an offset of panic

CDs and tools

The range of progressive muscle relaxation CDs on the market is vast, and allowing a soothing voice to walk you through each step of the process can be helpful.

Some muscle relaxation CDs include a meditative component. Many simply involve suggested progressions of body relaxation, while others incorporate visualization. All are beneficial in helping to elicit muscle relaxation.

The added benefit of using a calming, instructive voice on a CD is that a "third party" is there, not only to lead you through each step, but to help you focus if your mind has a tendency to wander. The use of a CD can be useful in developing these techniques as second nature. Repeatedly practiced, these techniques are stored away in your head, ready to access during periods of high stress or tension.

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