Progressive relaxation is a technique for learning to control the state of tension in one’s muscles. It was developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the early 1920s. It is not at all clear how shutting down our physical responses can be so effective in curing various disorders, including insomnia.
A progressive relaxation method (PMR) has become increasingly recommended by physicians and alternative practitioners alike over the past few decades. The method is to alternate the contraction and relaxation of all major muscle groups one by one. It started from one end of the body, goes through the body and ends with the other end of the body – literally going all key muscles from toe to top or other way round.
Generally speaking, a relaxation technique (or training) is any method, process, procedure, or activity that helps a person to relax; to attain a state of increased calmness; or otherwise reduce levels of anxiety, stress or anger. Relaxation techniques are often employed as one element of a wider stress management program and can decrease muscle tension, lower the blood pressure and slow heart and breath rates, among other health benefits.
People respond to stress in different ways, namely, by becoming overwhelmed, depressed or both. Yoga, QiGong, Taiji, and other techniques that include deep breathing tend to calm people who are overwhelmed by stress. Rhythmic exercise improves the mental and physical health of those who are depressed. People who encounter both symptoms simultaneously, feeling depressed in some ways and overexcited in others, may do best by walking or performing yoga techniques that are focused on strength.
Various techniques are used by individuals to improve their state of relaxation. Some of the methods are performed alone; some require the help of another person (often a trained professional); some involve movement, some focus on stillness; while other methods involve different elements.
Certain relaxation techniques known as “formal and passive relaxation exercises” are generally performed while sitting or lying quietly, with minimal movement and involve “a degree of withdrawal”. These include:
- Autogenic training
- Deep breathing
- Mindbody relaxation
- Zen Yoga
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Yoga Nidra
Movement-based relaxation methods incorporate exercise such as
- T’ai chi
Some forms of bodywork are helpful in promoting a state of increased relaxation. Examples include massage, acupuncture, the Feldenkrais Method, reflexology and self-regulation.
Some relaxation methods can also be used during other activities, for example, auto-suggestion and prayer. At least one study has suggested that listening to certain types of music, particularly New Age music and classical music can increase feelings associated with relaxation, such as peacefulness and a sense of ease.
A technique growing in popularity is flotation therapy, which is the use of a float tank in which a solution of Epsom salt is kept at skin temperature to provide effortless floating. Research in USA and Sweden has demonstrated a powerful and profound relaxation after twenty minutes. In some cases, floating may reduce pain and stress and has been shown to release endorphins.
Even actions as simple as a walk in the park have been shown to aid feelings of relaxation, regardless of the initial reason for the visit.
This Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) exercise can be very beneficial if you have racing mind and struggle to ‘let go’. This kind of exercise is especially beneficial if you are perfectionist (and a bit of a control-freak), impatient and fast thinker & doer. Learning to relax muscles is particularly good for those who store stress in their muscles.
Before you start this make your environment comfy: nice music, soft lightning/candles, aromatherapy oils or anything that makes your feel good to start with. This can be your luxury ‘me moment’ of the day.
Pre-words: Contract the muscles for 2-5 seconds at each phase, follow by complete relaxation and then let go. Now follow these steps:
- Lie down with your legs up the wall.
- Close your eyes and bring your attention to breathing.
- Focus on the movement of your belly (from where your breathing should come).
- Deepen and extend your exhale (naturally).
- Notice the slight gap at the end of each breath (especially after exhale).
- Don’t block any thoughts or sensations – let them come and go.
- Start scanning through your body (for example from toe to top).
- Wriggle your toes… relax and let go.
- Bend your ankles toward your body as far as you can… relax and let go.
- Contract your thighs… relax and let go.
- Tight your hip muscles… relax and let go.
- Squeeze your buttocks… relax and let go.
- Squeeze your navel down the floor… relax and let go.
- Squeeze your shoulders up to your ears… relax and let go.
- Clench your fists tightly… relax and let go.
- Contract your face… relax and let go.
- Wrinkle your forehead, try to make your eyebrows touch your hairline… relax and let go.
- Close your eyes as tightly as you can… relax and let go.
- Become aware of any other tension area, scrunch it, relax and let go.
- Follow your breathing and focus on long exhale.
You can do this exercise at any time during the day when you feel tense or stressed. It can also be done as a wind down routine just before getting to bed.
Remember: People respond differently to various activities. Some feel pleasant or refreshed, and others might feel calm and relaxed after an activity like this one. Some people notice little change the first time, but with practice, their control increases – as well as the benefits. If you practice this activity, your relaxation is likely to increase.
More exercises and tips
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation Guidance (doc)
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (10 mins YouTube)
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (8 mins YouTube)
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation Meditation (10 mins YouTube)