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Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Stress Reduction

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Kinetic or movement related stress relief practices need not involve a lot of exertion to be effective. Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is a stress relief technique that relies upon subtle rather than gross (large) muscular movements to promote relaxation and tension relief.

Progressive muscle relaxation is based on the observation that it is easier for muscles to relax from a position of high tension than it is from a position of lower tension. The kind of muscular tension that causes headaches and bodily pains tends to be a sort of moderate residual tension that people walk around with (and may not notice) for days. It is not the same sort of high tension that people create when they are trying to lift or push against heavy objects.

The premise of PMR is that by tightening and releasing all the major muscle groups of the body in an exaggerated fashion, you will end up feeling more relaxed and at peace with yourself, and much less stressed then you otherwise would. Consciously exaggerating and releasing muscle tension also helps you learn to recognize when you are holding onto unnecessary muscular tension so that you can use relaxation techniques to relieve this stress before it gets out of hand.

Before you begin PMR, take several deep, diaphragmatic breaths. Then proceed with the following steps:

  • Choose a quiet, dimly lit room that is a comfortable temperature. Lie down or sit comfortably and close your eyes.
  • Breathe in deeply through your nose, hold the breath for a few seconds, and then completely release it through slightly parted lips. Repeat this several times. Imagine your body becoming warm and heavy. Let go of any tension that you notice.
  • As you continue breathing slowly, clench both fists, squeezing them as hard as you can. Tighten both biceps and hold this tension for several seconds.
  • Release the tension and feel it ebb away. Focus on the change in sensations. Be sure to release all the tension in your fingers, your hands and your arms.
  • Now extend your fingers slightly as you let your arms drop to your lap or fall to your side. Try to keep your hands open as you feel the last remnants of tension float away. Continue to breathe in and out very slowly. Feel the warmth and heaviness that comes with relaxation.

Progressive muscle relaxation continues in this manner until all the major body muscle groups have been sequentially tensed for several seconds and then relaxed. A list of each muscle group, including instructions for how to tense these muscles is given just below:

  • Hands and Arms: Clench your hands into fists, and contract the muscles in your forearms and biceps. You may need to hold your arms out in front of you or at your side to allow the tensing and releasing to occur.
  • Facial muscles: Raise your eyebrows as high as possible and furrow/wrinkle your forehead. Then, move on to squinting or squeezing your eyes shut as tight as you can. Next, clench your teeth together tightly. Finally, squeeze your whole face up into a knot (squeeze your eyes, mouth and nose together).
  • Neck: Bring your chin slowly down toward your chest. Then, with the shoulders straight and relaxed, turn your head slowly to the right. Finally, turn your head slowly to the left.
  • Chest: Take as deep a breath as possible ("puffing" your chest out) and hold it for a count of five seconds.
  • Shoulders: Start by holding a shoulder shrug (pushing your shoulders up toward your ears) for five seconds. Then, slowly pull your shoulders back. End by pushing the shoulders forward.
  • Upper Back: With your shoulders resting on the back of the chair, carefully push your body forward so that your back is arched. If this particular technique causes pain or discomfort, you can skip it and continue on to the next muscle group.
  • Abdomen: Start by "sucking in your gut" (pulling in the stomach as far as possible). Then, push out your stomach or tense it as if you were preparing to be punched.
  • Legs: Start by raising your right leg, tensing your thigh and calf muscles, and pulling your toes back toward you. Then, raise your left leg in a similar fashion. Finally, raise both legs together and tighten your calf and thigh muscles as you extend your toes and point them forward as far as you can.
  • Feet: Without raising the legs, point the toes. Next, without raising the legs, pull your toes toward you as far as possible. End with digging your toes into the floor.

Throughout the exercise, keep your breathing very deep and very regular. Notice the warm spreading feeling that envelops your body as you tense and release each muscle group. This feeling is the spread of muscular relaxation throughout your body.

Once you've tensed a set of muscles, try to leave them be and don't make any demands of them for the duration of the exercise. Don't use your hands after you've tensed them, for instance. Try to maintain the state of relaxation in already tensed and released areas as you move to new areas, allowing your entire body to feel more and more relaxed as you progress. Once you have wrinkled and relaxed your forehead, try to keep it smooth; once you have clenched and relaxed your jaw, part your lips slightly to avoid clenching it again, and so on. Pause for about 30 seconds between tensing each set of muscles. Focus on your breathing and the sensation of relaxation which will be spreading throughout your body.

After you have tensed and relaxed all the major muscle groups, spend some time just enjoying the peaceful state. Keep your thoughts focused on the rhythm of your breathing and the calm that is flowing through your body. To finish the session, open your eyes and begin to gently move your hands and feet. If you are lying down, roll over on your side for a few moments before sitting up. Sit with your legs crossed comfortably and with your hands on your knees for a few minutes to give yourself time to make the transition from the deeply relaxed state to a more active one before continuing with your normal activities.