Progressive muscle relaxation is a classic exercise which has stood the test of time and is helpful to reduce tension and relieve the symptoms of stress and anxiety. Often clients wonder why I’m teaching them another relaxation exercise, so I hope the following helps to explain the why as well as the how.
When we are under pressure and our fight or flight system is being regularly activated by threats in our environment, one of the physical symptoms we can experience is a build-up of muscle tension. This muscle tension arises because of the impact of adrenaline, the way we are holding our bodies, and the way we are breathing. The fight or flight reflex prepares our muscles to act in face of a perceived threat in our environment. The threat doesn’t have to be real, even an imagined threat will do!
Our threat system is rather like an overhelpful friend, at times, pointing out threats, much of the time are not an actual danger at all. Nevertheless, as humans we get to live with a brain which responds to everyday situations and threats in much the same was as it would to a sabre toothed tiger. Our mind is working hard to protect us, and while we’ll all have our unique combinations of triggers, when the adrenaline hits our bodies, we all react in the same biological way. Our heart rate rises and our muscles are being prepared to take action – to fight and defend ourself, or to run away and take cover.
The benefits of progressive muscle relaxation
Whether we react with fear or anger to threats, muscle tension can be a feature. Muscle tension is one of the physical symptoms which forms part of the unhelpful cycle when the fight or flight system is activated, so this progressive muscle relaxation is a way of breaking into that vicious circle, creating a helpful loop instead. Because muscle tension as a symptom is linked to our thoughts, feelings and actions, if we can actively reduce muscle tension, it can have a positive impact on stress as a whole. (This, fact fans, is one of the reasons why therapeutic massage can help to relieve the symptoms of stress.)
Take the time to practise regularly and PMR can help to release and reduce muscle tension. Persistence is key. It would not be enough to do progressive muscle relaxation just once, although, you may experience an immediate benefit. It is best if you can run through this at least once per day. Most people start to notice a difference after 2-3 weeks of practice.
In time, you might be able to run through this as a brief body scan to look for areas of muscle tension in your body and take action to relax those areas. The exercise will also give you the knowledge to notice when muscle tension may be building for you. This can serve as an early warning sign to you to take action to reduce stress levels and ensure you are looking after yourself with appropriate self care.
How to practise progressive muscle relaxation
Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down. If you can, try to ensure that you can get 15-20 minutes without interruptions. So phones off, door closed, and ask anyone you may share a house with to give you a little time alone.
Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breathing. Try as best you can to keep your breathing slow and even, lengthening on the out breath. Try saying the word ‘relax’ to yourself a few times as you breathe out to encourage this lengthening of the out breath.
You are going to work through your main muscle groups one at a time, starting with your right foot. Begin by tensing your right foot, squeezing your toes together and pointing them downwards. Focus on that tension. Slowly release that tension as you breathe out, saying the word ‘relax’ to yourself. Notice the different sensations as you hold the tension and release the tension. Notice what it is like as the muscles relax. How does it feel different?
Now do the same with your right calf muscle. Tense your right calf and hold this tension for a while. Slowly release the tension as you breathe out.
Move slowly through the parts of your body as follows, working through the muscles of your right leg, left leg, buttocks, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, left arm, left hand and fingers, right arm, right hand and fingers, neck, jaw, lips, eyes, and forehead. With each group of muscles create tension followed by releasing and relaxing for each group of muscles.
Once you have worked your way through the different areas of your body, scan through your body and make a note to see what, if anything, feels different now. If some areas are still tense, spend extra time focusing on those muscles.
When you’re finished, you can open your eyes and see if you can take some of this feeling of relaxation into the rest of your day. If you have used this before bed, let yourself drift into a sleep naturally.
Ali Binns is an accredited CBT therapist in Bath. If you'd like to find out more about how she works, feel free to browse the site. Or if you would like to book an appointment or find out more about how CBT might help you, you can get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org