Progressive Muscle Relaxation
By Abbey Bronzati, BS, CPT
The number one sign of stress is muscle tension. This is because bracing is a major result of the fight-or-flight response, otherwise known as the stress response. Bracing prepares our body for action and protects our vital organs from damage. Unfortunately, people are often unaware of excess muscle tension until they have muscle pain, back pain, tension headaches, migraines, or physical dysfunction. When you practice progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), you focus on the sensations of tension in one particular muscle at a time. Then, you release the tension and focus on the sensations of relaxation in the same muscle group. It is generally well-liked as it can provide relief from muscle tension, symptoms of anxiety and fear, as well as increase focus and alertness.
Why Target Muscle Tension?
Maintained bracing and muscle contraction for long periods of time can result in inefficient energy expenditure, backaches, headaches, pain in the neck and shoulders, and other pains and illnesses. Muscle contraction is under voluntary control, meaning that we can consciously alter muscle tension as a means of interacting with the body’s nervous system. When we are able to consciously interact with the nervous system we are able to manipulate the stress and relaxation responses for a more peaceful life experience.
Benefits of Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
While PMR targets muscle tension directly, the benefits go beyond the muscle. PMR has shown improvements in tension headaches, migraines, and backaches. It has also been shown to reduce the side effects of insomnia, pain, high blood pressure, cancer, and cancer treatment. Research has also shown that PMR can reduce anxiety and relieve mild to moderate levels of depression. Additionally, a benefit of practicing PMR is improved awareness of stress and levels of muscle tension. The more often you practice this technique, the better familiar you become with how the muscle feels when it is relaxed and when it is holding onto tension.
As you practice PMR you will learn to better identify tension. Pay attention to the contracted and relaxed muscle so that you start to recognize muscle tension. This will also help you to be mindful during your practice.
Progressive muscle relaxation is best performed in a distraction-free environment where you can be completely comfortable. Lying down is best, but PMR can be done in a seated position as well. Finally, maintain a passive attitude. Don’t force relaxation, which can result in frustration and even more muscle tension. Just allow the muscles to relax.
As you settle in, you may find that taking several deep breaths can help you to feel calm and get into the right headspace to start. When you are performing PMR, bring your attention to the specific muscle or muscle group. The rest of your body should be relaxed. As you begin to inhale, maximally tense the chosen muscle for 5 to 7 seconds and then relax for 20 to 30 seconds. These lengths of time are rules of thumb and you should experiment to find what works well for you. It’s important to notice how the muscle feels once relaxed in contrast to how it feels when it was tensed.
If the muscle is in pain or injured, avoid maximal contractions. You can also do a passive contraction where you bring your awareness to the muscle tension and just allow it to melt away. You can generally find relief from muscle tension with one contraction-relaxation cycle, but performing more cycles can be beneficial. A common and relaxing system involves a 3 cycle progression of maximal contraction, 50% contraction, followed by 5% contraction. When you hold maximal contraction your muscles are likely to shake, and some discomfort is normal, but it should never be painful.
See the short video above for a guided full body progressive muscle relaxation as well as other ideas and tips for a deeper relaxation response.
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Sources: Guided technique from “The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook” by Dr. Martha Davis and Dr. Matthew McKay. Photos taken from Pinterest.