Progressive Muscle Relaxation

A simple technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) was founded and perfected by Edmund Jacobson MD, PhD in the 1930s.

His premise was that, 'mental calmness is a natural result of physical relaxation.'

Dr. Jacobson carefully studied the relationship between muscular tension and various disorders of the body and psyche.

Twenty years of research resulted in the book, “Progressive Relaxation” in 1929, and later the publication, “You Must Relax” in 1934.

We now know that stress and anxiety is strongly associated with muscle tension.

Progressive relaxation techniques can be used as a natural muscle relaxer and is especially helpful since it’s effective in achieving the relaxation response, a deep conscious state of calming the mind.

When you are mentally stressed, you unconsciously tense your muscles. Tension held in your muscles adds physical discomfort or pain. It will commonly show up as a headache, backache, stomachache, or concentrate in your face, neck and shoulders - making the mental stress even worse!

Progressive muscle relaxation techniques break this recurring stressed-mind/tense-muscle cycle, a.k.a. the fight or flight stress response. Dr. Jacobson understood that you needed to relieve muscular tension in order to reach a state of overall deep relaxation.

"An anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body”

~ Edmund Jacobson, MD

Deep muscle relaxation releases the physical tensions that manifest from all the hindering thoughts in your mind. It’s one of the simplest, yet direct ways to quiet the internal, mental chatter – since with physical relaxation comes mental calmness.

The PMR technique is easily learned and widely used today in the treatment of many stress disorders and stress related illness like:

  • Anxiety
  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • Phobias
  • Panic attacks
  • Headaches
  • Backaches
  • Ulcers
  • High blood pressure
  • Colitis
  • Insomnia
  • Gastrointestinal disorders

Muscular tension is the most common stress symptom that can also lead to:

  • Stiffness
  • Pain/Discomfort
  • Distorted and misaligned posture
  • Joint instability

Many variations of relaxation exercises have sprung up since the release of Dr. Jacobson’s titled book, Progressive Relaxation. But the original progressive muscle relaxation procedure teaches you how to relax your muscles using a two-step process.

(1) You intentionally tighten and apply tension to various muscle groups throughout the entire body - one at a time.

(2) You release and let go of the tension and focus on how the muscles relax and feel as tension flows away.

“Relaxation is the direct negative of nervous excitement.
It is the absence of nerve-muscle impulse”

~ Edmund Jacobson, MD

Basic Guidelines for PMR:

  • Allow 20-30 min. a day (2x daily is ideal - Time will shorten with practice)
  • Find a quiet location with no distractions
  • Wear loose clothing and remove shoes
  • Practice on an empty stomach – avoid eating, drinking, or smoking
  • Assume a comfortable position either sitting in a chair or lying down
  • Close your eyes and assume a passive, unrushed attitude
  • Tense and relax each muscle group once - focus on both sensations
  • Use the same time intervals for all muscle groups
  • Allow all the other muscles in your body to remain relaxed

The Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique:

STEP 1: TENSIONInhale and purposely tense up or tighten hard the selected muscle group (not so hard that you strain). Hold the muscle tension for 5-10 seconds.

STEP 2: RELAX - Exhale while quickly but gently letting go, releasing tension. Take pleasure in the sensation of tension draining out of your body. Be still 15-20 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group. Compare relaxation vs. contraction.

Throughout the exercise, maintain awareness on how your muscles feel during both contracting and relaxing. When your attention wanders, bring it back to the particular muscle group you're working on.

Alternate muscle groups - from right to left, starting with the hands, work up to the shoulders. Then begin with the feet. Starting with the right foot, work back up to the shoulders (again), leaving the neck and face last.

Any particular sequence is ok, but to start with areas in which physical and emotional tension seem to gather, such as the shoulders, neck and face might prove difficult.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Before practicing Progressive Muscle Relaxation, you should first consult with your physician about any deliberate muscle tensing that may aggravate a pre-existing condition.

Tensing the Various Muscle Groups

  • Hands & Forearms - clench your hand and make a tight fist.
  • Upper Arms - curl your arm and flex your bicep as if “making a muscle”.
  • Shoulders - shrug both your shoulders trying to touch them to your ears.
  • Feet - flex your toes upward.
  • Front of Legs - point your toes so that your foot is parallel with your leg.
  • Back of Legs - flex your feet upwards, stretching your heels down.
  • Thighs - extend your leg keeping your foot relaxed, press the back of your knee towards the floor.
  • Bottom - clench your buttocks together.
  • Abdomen - hold your stomach muscles in tight.
  • Lower Back - press the small of your back into the chair or floor.
  • Upper Back – (1) with both arms down along your sides, tighten and press them in against your body. (2) if sitting, try to touch both elbows together behind your back.
  • Chest - breath in, hold your breath and tighten your chest muscles.
  • Shoulders - breath in, hold your breath and again shrug your shoulders as if trying to touch them to your ears.
  • Neck - (1) stretch your head back, as if touching your chin to the ceiling. (2) bend your head forward reaching your chin toward your chest.
  • Face - frown, scrunch face and make a stiff "pucker" with your lips, shutting eyes tight.

When you have finished your Progressive Muscle Relaxation session, remain quiet with eyes closed for a few seconds. Mentally scan your body for any residual tension. If a particular area remains tense, repeat one or two tense-relax cycles for that group of muscles.

Upon conclusion take a deep breath, hold it and say to your self, “I’m calm” as you slowly exhale. Repeat. Open your eyes and give yourself a few more seconds to adjust before slowly getting up.

Notice how calm you are.

The Progressive Muscle Relaxation method will enable you to recognize what it actually feels like to be deeply physically relaxed. You can then willfully - anytime, anywhere - initiate physical muscle relaxation at the first signs of any tension.

Cherish this sense of well being throughout your entire body!

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