Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) involves tensing and relaxing, in succession, different muscle groups of the body.
PMR has been shown to be good for reducing stress and for insomnia and has been useful in addressing chronic pain. It is also very compatible for anyone who may have been using mindfulness exercises.
The technique is based on the ideas of Edmund Jacobson who was writing in the 1930s. His approach emphasised his belief that physical relaxation is a good way to move towards greater mental calmness.
While it does require some physical effort, you will find this exercise very relaxing. And because the movements are very small, it can be useful for anyone who may not be feeling quite up to more strenuous exercise.
Preparing for Progressive Muscle Relaxation
PMR can be mastered in a few sessions of about 15 to 20 minutes a day.
To start, get yourself ready. Make sure you are in a place that is quiet and comfortable and that you won’t be disturbed.
Lie on your back in a comfortable position. Use a pillow if you wish. Allow your arms to rest at your sides, palms down.
Pause for a moment and take ten slow, deep breaths. Focus on breathing out, using your diaphragm, as slowly as possible, until the lungs are completely empty. Pause, then breath in.
Notice the sensations of your lungs emptying and your rib cage falling as you breathe out. Notice the rising and falling of your abdomen.
The exercise involves tensing each muscle group hard for about 10 seconds (but not so hard that you strain a muscle) and then letting go of it suddenly. You then give yourself 15-20 seconds to relax before moving on to the next group.
As you release the tension in each muscle, focus on the physical feeling. As the muscle tension is released, image that it is not just physical stress that is leaving your body but that stressful feelings in your body and mind are leaving.
Start with your hands. Clench your fists. Hold for 7-10 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds.
Use these same time intervals for all muscle groups. Any time you relax a muscle or muscle group do so quickly, even suddenly.
Move up your arms to your biceps. Tighten your upper arms by drawing your forearms up toward your shoulders and “making a muscle” with both arms. Hold for 10 seconds then release suddenly. Relax for 20 seconds before moving on.
Next are your triceps – the muscles on the underside of your upper arms. Tighten them by extending your arms out straight and locking your elbows. Hold for 10 seconds, release suddenly, and relax for 20 seconds.
It will be the same lengths of time for all muscles.
As you relax each muscle, concentrate on that part of your body. Noticing how the muscle feels when relaxed compared to to how it felt when you had it tensed.
Enjoy the feeling of muscle lightness that should arise between each cycle of tension. Then move on to the next group of muscles.
On to the Head and Neck
Next is the head. Tense the muscles in your forehead by raising your eyebrows as far as you can. Hold, then relax.
Imagine your forehead muscles becoming smooth and limp as they relax.
Tense the muscles around your eyes by clenching your eyelids tightly shut. Hold and relax.
Tighten your jaw by opening your mouth so widely that you stretch the muscles around the hinges of your jaw. Hold… then relax. Let your lips part and allow your jaw to hang loose.
Moving back down towards the torso, tighten the muscles in the back of your neck by pulling your head back, as if you were going to touch your head to your back. Hold, and then relax.
Don’t overdo it. You should never feel any pain with this exercise. The neck area is often especially tight. If so, it might be a good idea to repeat this exercise for these muscles. That’s up to you and how you are feeling.
Stop for a moment when finished with the neck. Feel the weight of your head sinking into your pillow. Take a few deep breaths paying particular attention to using your diaphragm to expel the air.
Moving to Your Torso.
Tighten your shoulders by raising them up as if you were going to touch your ears. Hold, feel the stress in your body and then relax.
Tighten the muscles around your shoulder blades by pushing your shoulder blades back as if you were going to touch them together. Hold the tension in your shoulder blades as tightly as you can without hurting the muscles. Then relax. Again, this is regularly an area of tension and it might help to repeat the exercise for this muscle group.
Moving to the front of your body, tighten the muscles of your chest by taking in a deep breath. Feel your chest expand as your lungs fill with air.
Hold this for 10 seconds, if you can, and then release. This time release the tension slowly as you exhale the air. Imagine any excess tension in your chest flowing away with the exhalation.
Now to your stomach. Tighten your stomach muscles by sucking your stomach in. Hold it for 10 seconds and then release.
Move again to your back. Tighten your lower back by arching it up. Hold then relax. Be careful with this one. Do not do this exercise if you suffer from back pain or if you have a back injury. You will not lose out by leaving out the lower back and the risk is not worth it.
Moving lower towards the legs, tighten your buttocks by pulling them together. Use your strength to hold and then relax.
Stop for a moment and feel the muscles in your hips going loose and limp as they relax. Capture this feeling in your mind.
Squeeze the muscles in your thighs all the way down to your knees. Hold, and relax. Feel your thigh muscles smoothing out and relaxing completely. This should be a particularly nice feeling in your body given that these muscles are among the largest and most powerful.
The lower legs are more difficult but worth the effort. Tighten your calf muscles by pulling your toes toward you. You don’t need to use your hands, just tighten the muscles themselves. Hold but be careful not to overdo this and cause cramps. Relax the calf muscles.
Finally, move on to the feet and ankles. Tighten your feet by curling your toes downward, away from your body. Keep your legs straight but relaxed. Hold this tension in your feet and then relax.
That’s a fairly involved exercise but well worth it.
Move to Your Mind
The PMR technique does not directly involve any mental exercise. It is based on Jacobson’s idea that relaxing the body muscles will calm the mind. However, you should finish by engaging the mind in the exercise.
You do this by scanning your body for any tension that may remain. Quickly review each of the muscles groups you have worked on. If you find that a particular area remains tense, repeat one or two tense-relax cycles for that group of muscles.
Now imagine a wave of relaxation slowly spreading throughout your body, starting at your head and gradually penetrating every muscle group all the way down to your toes.
Throughout the exercise, once you have relaxed, maintain your focus on your muscles. When your attention wanders, bring it back to the particular muscle group you’re working on.
Concentrate on what is happening. Feel the build-up of tension in each particular muscle group and then the release.
Warning: only do these exercises if you are in an adequate state of good physical health to undertake them. If you are in any doubt you should consult a qualified professional. I’m a physical trainer, not a medical doctor.