Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Pro­gres­sive mus­cle relax­ation is a tech­nique for proac­tive­ly deal­ing with stress. You tight­en and relax mus­cles using a pat­tern we describe.

Back when I was coun­selling for a liv­ing, I was pret­ty well known for my aver­sion to drugs… and by that I mean “fix-your-mind drugs.” I still get a bit incensed over the push to med­icate, despite most of the drugs being of ques­tion­able effectiveness.

And then there’s the whole process of wean­ing peo­ple off of the drugs they become addict­ed to. But we’ll let this top­ic go for anoth­er day.

Because of my interest in Bodywork, of course my focus would be on the physical things we can do to deal with the effects of stress.

Wil­helm Reich, the father of Body­work psy­chother­a­py, was the first to grasp what peo­ple did with stres­sors. He noticed what he called “char­ac­ter armour.” In oth­er words, when stressed, peo­ple tight­en their mus­cles, and soon, the acute tight­en­ing becomes “chron­ic.”

Body­work pro­vides a way out — using pres­sure on the “tight­ened part” cre­ates the envi­ron­ment to “let the stres­sor go.” Not only do you dis­cov­er how and where you “hold” stress, you also dis­cov­er that even deeply held stress can be “dropped.”

Sadly, finding Bodyworkers is difficult.

The good news is that you can get a han­dle on what your body is doing. In a sec­ond, I’ll walk you through an exer­cise you can try. But I also want to make a cou­ple of Body­work suggestions.

Alter­na­tives to Bodyworkers:

  • Deep tis­sue mas­sage ther­a­pists (Rolfers, deep tis­sue): The Rolfers I’ve worked with real­ly get in there. Best if you decide to to a “full round” or Rolf­ing, which involves mul­ti­ple sessions.
  • Acu­pres­sure: some acu­pres­sure peo­ple know about Body­work — you’d have to ask around.
  • “Reg­u­lar” mas­sage ther­a­pists: again, ask around. My expe­ri­ence has been mixed to neg­a­tive, as even mas­sage ther­a­pists who adver­tise as “deep tis­sue” real­ly aren’t push­ing all that hard.
  • Last­ly, “reg­u­lar” mas­sage ther­a­pists are NOT trained to deal with the emo­tions that arise from deep Body­work. Most will imme­di­ate­ly pull back. I’ve nev­er come up with a solu­tion for this.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique

This mus­cle relax­ation tech­nique doesn’t require much exer­tion for it to be effec­tive; that’s prob­a­bly why it is so pop­u­lar. It works best on the type of mus­cu­lar ten­sion that caus­es body aches and headaches — pains that you have like­ly had for days; pains that may even have “gone back­ground” — you might not even real­ize they are still there.

Pro­gres­sive mus­cle relax­ation uses sub­tle move­ments to relieve ten­sion and to begin to relax. The method is based on the idea that it’s eas­i­er to relax mus­cles by mak­ing small movements.

By tightening each muscle group and then releasing it, you start to feel more relaxed and less stressed.

It’s all about exag­ger­at­ing each con­scious “tight­en­ing and release” -– you become more aware of your mus­cles — more aware of when you’re hold­ing ten­sion. You then use the mus­cle relax­ation tech­nique to reduce your stress lev­els before the stress has a chance to get out of control.

How To Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  • The first step is find­ing a room to prac­tice this – it should be rel­a­tive­ly qui­et, dim­ly lit, and you should be able to sit com­fort­ably or lie down.
  • Close your eyes and start breath­ing deeply through your nose. Hold your breath for just a few sec­onds and then release it through your lips. Do this sev­er­al times, and imag­ine that your body is becom­ing heavy and warm. Release any ten­sion that you become aware of.
  • Con­tin­ue to breathe slow­ly and clench both of your fists, then tight­en your biceps and hold the ten­sion for sev­er­al sec­onds. Now release the ten­sion and let it ebb away. Your focus should be on the chang­ing sen­sa­tions in your mus­cles. As you allow the ten­sion to flow from your arms, hands, and fin­gers keep your hands open to shake off the remnants.

Now, continue this pattern through each of the major muscle groups in your body.

  • Facial. Start by rais­ing your brows and fur­row­ing your fore­head. Then squeeze your eyes closed as tight­ly as pos­si­ble, and then clench your teeth. Final­ly, squeeze your face like a tod­dler would do after eat­ing lemon for the first time. HOLD for five sec­onds, then slow­ly release.
  • Neck. Slow­ly pull your chin toward your chest. Then turn your head to the right, then to the left, then back to cen­tre. You should keep your shoul­ders relaxed but straight while you prac­tice this tech­nique. Tight­en your neck mus­cles. HOLD for five sec­onds, then slow­ly release.
  • Chest. Puff your chest out and take a deep breath. Tight­en your entire chest. HOLD for five sec­onds, then slow­ly release.
  • Shoul­ders. Shrug your shoul­ders, push­ing them back for a few sec­onds, relax and then pull them for­ward. Roll your shoul­ders upward. HOLD for five sec­onds, then slow­ly release.
  • Upper Back. You can either sit in a chair and allow your back to rest against the chair, or place a rolled up tow­el or bol­ster under your upper back. Push your body so that your upper back arch­es. HOLD for five sec­onds, then slow­ly release. (If this is uncom­fort­able or caus­es you pain then you should skip this one.)
  • Abdomen. Pull your stom­ach in and then push it out, tens­ing it as though you were expect­ing a blow. HOLD for five sec­onds, then slow­ly release.
  • Legs. Lift your leg and tense your calf and thigh mus­cles (pre­pare for cramp­ing) and bring your toes toward you. Do each leg in turn first and then raise both of them before final­ly point­ing your toes out as far as pos­si­ble. HOLD each move for five sec­onds, then slow­ly release.
  • Feet. Point your toes (all while keep­ing your legs down) and then pull them toward you before final­ly dig­ging your feet into the floor. You should breathe deeply while you prac­tice this exer­cise. HOLD for five sec­onds, then slow­ly release.

As you work through each group of muscles, you will feel warmth enveloping your body as you finally relax.

After you com­plete the exer­cise, take some down time and allow your mus­cles to rest. Just enjoy the relax­ation before you rush back into action. You’re tran­si­tion­ing from total relax­ation so you don’t want to undo your hard work by jump­ing up and div­ing back into your day.

While the total amount of time required to com­plete this exer­cise will vary from per­son to per­son it real­ly doesn’t take much time at all. Remem­ber to give your­self enough time to pause for 30 sec­onds between mus­cle groups, and to enjoy the peace once you have finished.

You may choose to do this in total silence, but relax­ing music is an effec­tive way to block out any back­ground noise, which may break your focus.


Index and Body + Health Video.

An excel­lent “intro” arti­cle on how stress happens.

A “stress primer,” describ­ing the sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry behind stress.

Men­tal exer­cis­es for clear­ing and still­ing the mind.

Breath­work descrip­tion, pictures

Breath­work movie clips

Wayne’s books on liv­ing life ful­ly and com­plete­ly
click here

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