April 27, 2019 |Gideon Hanekom

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Quite a few of my coaching clients struggle with stress and how to cope with it in their daily lives and relationships. And in an attempt to manage their stress, many unfortunately resort to coping mechanisms and strategies that are often very ineffective or even conducive to more stress. But, fortunately, there are simple, safe, and natural relaxation methods available one can try that work, like progressive muscle relaxation or PMR. And in this post, you will learn more about how progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) works and what it can do for you.*

You’ve probably heard of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) even if you’re not sure how to go about it.

After all, it does have a long history.

An American doctor named Edmund Jacobson published his first book about the concept in 1929 after noticing that physical relaxation helped his patients to feel calmer.

Since then, advocates of PMR have been using the technique to enjoy a wide range of physical and mental health benefits which we’ll look at briefly below.

Here are just a few benefits of adopting progressive muscle relaxation into your life:

  1. Relieve stress. Anxiety and stress can make your muscles stiffen, and that can leave you feeling tenser. PMR helps to reverse the cycle because your mind calms down when your body loosens up.
  2. Treat Insomnia. PMR can be very effective in helping you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Plus, unlike many medications, it has no harmful side effects.
  3. Manage chronic pain. PMR has had some success with various conditions, especially with relieving chronic pain. Other uses include lowering blood pressure and enhancing digestion.
  4. Connect with your body. One of the main advantages of PMR is that it helps you to listen to your body. That means you can notice symptoms faster and respond more quickly.

But how does it work?

The PMR procedure essentially teaches you to tense and relax your muscles through a two-step process which creates overall relaxation in your body.

First, you deliberately and progressively apply tension to certain muscle groups, after which you release the tension and turn your attention to noticing how the muscles relax as the tension flows away.

And through this repetitive practice, you quickly learn to recognise and distinguish the associated feelings of a tensed muscle and a completely relaxed muscle.

Moreover, after gaining this simple knowledge, you can start to induce physical muscular relaxation at the first signs of the tension that accompanies anxiety.

In essence, you’re using induced physical relaxation to create mental calmness and relaxation which can be beneficial in any situation.

So, where do you start?

Let’s start by looking at a few basic suggestions to practice PMR.

Suggestions for practising progressive muscle relaxation (PMR):

It is recommended that you practice full PMR twice a day for about a week before moving on to the shortened form (explained down below).

But, of course, the time needed to master the full PMR procedure varies from person to person.

However, here are a few things to keep in mind as you consider using PMR.

  1. Master the basics first. PMR involves deliberately tensing and relaxing individual muscle groups. You squeeze each group for about 5 seconds as tightly as you can without causing pain or cramps. Then, you completely relax the muscles. Learning to get comfortable and good at this might take some practice. Be patient.
  2. Learn the sequence. Individual instructions may vary slightly, but generally, you start with your feet and lower legs and then you work upward to your head. As you become more experienced, you may sometimes want to do shorter sessions targeting a single muscle group that is particularly stiff.
  3. Monitor your breath. For maximum results, match your movements to your breath. Inhale as you tense your muscles and exhale as you release them. Relaxation is typically induced when we hold and exhale our breath.
  4. Slow down. Give yourself time to notice the difference between how your muscles feel when they’re bunched up compared to when they’re relaxed. So, pause for about 20 seconds in between each muscle group if you want. The key is to be patient. Also, give yourself a few minutes of stillness at the end of your session.
  5. Listen to a recording. You may find it helpful to follow a recording to guide you through the sequence and pace your movements, especially when you’re just starting out. Google is your friend here.
  6. Avoid distractions. Always practice full PMR in a quiet place alone with no electronic distractions, not even background music (unless you’re using a recording to guide you initially). Remove your shoes and wear loose clothing. You can sit or lie down. Close your eyes or turn down the lights.
  7. Avoid eating, smoking, or drinking. It’s best to practice before meals rather than after, for the sake of your digestive processes. And never practice PMR after using any intoxicants.
  8. When you finish a session, relax with your eyes closed for a few seconds, and then get up slowly. “Orthostatic hypotension” – a sudden drop in blood pressure due to standing up quickly – can cause you to faint. Some people like to count backwards from 5 to 1, timed to slow, deep breathing, and then say, “Eyes open. Completely calm. Fully alert/awake.”
  9. Talk to your doctor. While PMR is safe for most adults and children, there are some concerns you may want to discuss with your doctor, such as any previous muscle injuries.

Now that you have a better understanding of progressive muscle relaxation, let’s look at a typical sequence of the muscle groups you can follow in the full version of PMR.

Muscle groups

You will be working with most of the major muscle groups in your body, but for convenience, you will make a systematic progression from your feet upwards.

  1. Right foot
  2. Right lower leg and foot
  3. Entire right leg
  4. Left foot
  5. Left lower leg and foot
  6. Entire left leg
  7. Right hand
  8. Right forearm and hand
  9. Entire right arm
  10. Left hand
  11. Left forearm and hand
  12. Entire left arm
  13. Abdomen
  14. Chest
  15. Neck and shoulders
  16. Face

Note: If you are left-handed, you might want to begin with your left foot, and so on.

The sequence of muscles should be pretty straightforward, but don’t worry to memorise it.

Just have a written down somewhere to glance at as you go through the process the first couple of times.

It’s become second nature soon enough.

Let’s now look at the tension-relaxation procedure and how it work practically.

Tension-Relaxation procedure

Step One: Tension.

The process of applying tension to a muscle is essentially the same regardless of which muscle group you are using.

First, focus your mind on the muscle group; for example, your right hand.

Then inhale and simply squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for about 5-8 seconds.

In this example, it would involve making a tight fist with your hand.

Note: Beginners usually make the mistake of allowing muscles other than the intended group to tense as well; in the example, this would be tensing muscles in your right arm and shoulder, not just in your right hand. With practice you will learn to make very fine discriminations among muscles; for the moment just do the best you can.

It can be very frustrating for a beginner to try to experience a fine degree of muscle separation when they start out.

Because neglect of the body, or underuse of the body, is an almost universal reality in the modern-day Western world, it is usually very difficult to begin learning how to take control of your body “mechanics.”

So, understand that learning fine muscle distinction is in itself a major part of the overall PMR learning process.

PMR isn’t just about tension and relaxation, it is also about muscle discernment.

But also realise that no part of the body is an isolated unit, no matter how good you get at muscle discernment.

The muscles of the hand, for example, do have connections in the forearm, so when you tense your hand there will always be some small tension occurring in the forearm.

So, assuming you understand what I mean, let’s continue.

Ultimately, it’s super important to really feel the tension.

And done properly, the tension procedure will cause the muscles to start to shake, and you will feel some mild pain.

Note: Be careful not to hurt yourself, as compared to feeling mild pain. Contracting the muscles in your feet and your back, especially, can cause serious problems if not done carefully; i.e., gently but deliberately.

Step Two: Releasing the Tension.

This is the best part of the process because it is actually pleasurable.

After the 5-8 seconds, just quickly and suddenly let go.

Let all the tightness and pain flow out of the muscles as you simultaneously exhale.

Staying with our example, this would be imagining tightness and pain flowing out of your right hand through your fingertips as you exhale.

Feel the muscles relax and become loose and limp, tension flowing away like water in a river.

Focus on and notice the difference between tension and relaxation.

Note: The point here is to really focus on the change that occurs as the tension is let go. Do this very deliberately, because you are trying to learn to make some very subtle distinctions between muscular tension and muscular relaxation.

Once you’ve completed the muscle sequence, stay relaxed for about 15 seconds, and then repeat the tension-relaxation cycle.

You’ll probably notice more sensations the second time.

Now, as you’ve read through this so far, you might be worried about the time this could take.

If that’s the case, let me first say that the full PMR procedure doesn’t take all that long.

But, be it as it may, there is also the option of a shortened PMR schedule.

In this schedule, muscles are “bundled” into major groups which are then tensed and relaxed together as a group.

This speeds up the process significantly, but it also requires a higher level of experience and muscle discernment.

This is why it’s a good idea to start with the full PMR schedule first.

Simply follow the list of muscle groups in the sequence given above and work through your entire body.

Practice this twice a day for a week or so.

Spend extra time, if necessary, until you can achieve a deep sense of physical relaxation.

And once you feel you’ve achieved that, then you can move on to the shortened PMR schedule.

The shortened PMR schedule

In the shortened form of PMR, you will,

(1) work with summary groups of muscles (“muscle bundles”) rather than individual muscle groups, and

(2) begin to use cue-controlled relaxation (below).

(1) The four summary muscle groups are as follows:

  • Lower limbs
  • Abdomen and Chest
  • Arms, Shoulders, and Neck
  • Face

Instead of working with just one specific part of your body at a time, focus on the complete group.

In Group 1, for example, focus on both legs and feet all at once.

(2) Cue-controlled relaxation

You use the same tension-relaxation procedure as full PMR but apply it to the groups of muscles instead of individual muscles.

In addition to that, also focus on your breathing during both tension and relaxation.

Inhale slowly as you apply and hold the tension.

Then, when you let the tension go and exhale, say a cue word to yourself like,

“Let it go”
“It’s OK”
“Stay calm”
“All things are passing”
“Trust in God”

Doing this will help you to associate (anchor) the cue word with a state of relaxation so that eventually the cue word alone will produce a relaxed state.

So choose a phrase you connect with and combine it with the short PMR schedule and test it over time.

Remember to keep using the same word or phrase if you want your mind to anchor that word or phrase to a sense of relaxation and calmness.

Take Away  …

I really hope you found this helpful but more than that, I hope you get to try PMR out for yourself.

It is easy to learn and requires only about 15 minutes of practice a day to see noticeable results.

Surely the benefits of PMR justifies the little time it requires to learn this valuable tool.

So, put it to work for you and watch how you become more in control of your life.

*Before practising PMR, you should consult with your physician if you have a history of serious injuries, muscle spasms, or back problems because the deliberate muscle tensing of the PMR procedure could exacerbate any of these pre-existing conditions.

About the author

Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is the creator of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a popular relationship blog that ranks among the top 50 relationship blogs in 2024. The website helps couples to create happier, healthier, and more intimate relationships. Gideon is a trained professional counsellor and holds post-graduate degrees in Theology and Psychology. His articles have also been featured on respected platforms such as Marriage.com and The Good Men Project.

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