Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise (PMR)
By reducing physical tension in our bodies, we can diminish anxiety, experience more calm and focus, and improve our health.
Most people tend to hold their tension in specific muscle groups – the stomach, jaw, or neck and shoulders, but you may be different.
Believe it or not, most people don’t know how to recognize muscle tension, let alone how to command them to relax! Learning the difference between tension and relaxation will help.
Progressive muscle relaxation or PMR works through each of the muscle groups by first tightening the muscle group, holding it, and then releasing. This way, you learn how to take control of the muscle and recognize the tension. And you learn what it feels like when it’s not.
Actively engaging in progressive muscle relaxation exercises effectively loosens and relaxes the muscles. As with most things, the more you practice them the more impact they will have for you.
Below is the basic script for PMR. Follow each of the steps below for the different muscle groups. As we move through each body part, you will be using the same pattern of tensing and relaxing: When tensing a body part, hold the tension for about 10 seconds. Then let the tension go and wait for another 10 seconds before you repeat. You may notice that you tend to breathe in as you tense and breathe out as you relax. This is the natural rhythm of the body and it is easiest if you keep following this. Breathe in as you tense, and breathe out as you relax.
You may want to make a recording of this – talking yourself through each muscle group so you can follow it without having to keep referring to the script. You can also find samples on YouTube. Here is one: PMR by InnerHealthStudio.com
Begin by finding a comfortable position – either sitting or lying down. You can move or change positions any time during this exercise to make yourself more comfortable. Allow your eyes to gently close. Become aware of the weight of your body, of your head, your shoulders, your arms, and your legs.
Let’s begin by focusing on the breath. Breathe in deeply… feel your belly rise… and hold it…hold it… and now release. As you let the air go out, imagine you are releasing all of your stress and tension.
Take another deep breath in. Hold it…. and then exhale slowly, allowing the tension to leave your body with the air. Now breathe even more slowly and gently… breathe in….hold…. out… breathe in…hold… and out… Continue to breathe slowly and gently. Allow your breathing to relax you.
Starting with the large muscles of your legs, tense your thighs by pressing your heels into the floor as hard as you can. Tense the muscles further… Hold the tension. Feel the tightness in your thighs… Feel the muscles wanting to release this tension. Hold it for a few moments more…. and now relax while you exhale. Let all the tension go… Notice the difference between tension and relaxation. Once again, tighten the thighs… Hold it… and then release…
Tense your calves by lifting your toes towards your shin… hold it… tighter… Hold it… and release. Notice how relaxed the calves and thighs feel… Take another gentle breath.
Tense your feet by curling your toes under… hold it…tighter… and release. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation. Now squeeze the toes again … harder, tighter… and release. Let all the tension go. Feel the muscles in your legs going limp, loose, and relaxed. Notice how relaxed the muscles feel now… Enjoy the pleasant feeling of relaxation in your legs and feet.
Now focus on the muscles of your buttocks. Tighten your buttocks by squeezing them together. You should rise in the chair slightly. Hold … and then… relax… Again… Tighten these muscles as much as you can. Hold this tension… and then release. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation.
Now move your attention to your chest and stomach. Tighten and tense these muscles. Tighten them further…hold it…. and release. Now place your hand on your stomach. Breathe deeply into your stomach so that your hand is pushed out. Hold and then relax. Repeat. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation.
Now arch your back while keeping your head tilted forward. Hold it… hold it … hold it… and relax. Let all the tension go. Feel your back comfortably relaxing into a good and healthy position.
Now focus on the muscles in your arms. Clench your right hand into a tight fist, noticing the tension as you do… Clench it tighter and notice the tension in your fist, hand, forearm and bicep… Hold it for a few moments more…. and now release. Let the muscles of your arm and hand relax and go limp. Repeat this with your left hand.
Then tense both arms and fists together. Tighten upper arms, lower arms, and hands. Tense the muscles in your arms and hands as tightly as you can. Squeeze harder…. harder… hold the tension in your arms, and fists. Hold it for a few moments more…. and now release. Let the muscles of your arms and hands relax and go limp at your sides. Allow the muscles in your arms to relax completely. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation.
Focus again on your breathing. Slow, even, regular breaths. Breathe in relaxation…. and breathe out tension….. in relaxation….and out tension…. Continue to breathe slowly and rhythmically.
Now move your attention to your neck. Gently lean your head to the left until you feel the muscles tighten in the right side of your neck. Slowly roll your head forward around to the right and then slowly back to the left. This exercise should not cause any pain. If you feel pain you are stretching the muscles too tightly, and you need to be a little gentler. Repeat.
Now move your attention to your face. Wrinkle your forehead as tightly as you can. It can help to lift you eyebrows. Hold this for 10 seconds and then relax. Now squint your eyes and hold that tension for 10 seconds. Relax, and then repeat. Now clench your jaw by biting your teeth together. Then unclench them and relax. When your jaw is relaxed your lips will be slightly parted. Really notice the difference between the tension and the relaxation. Repeat. Now press your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Then relax and let your tongue fall to the floor of your mouth. Repeat. Now press your lips together then purse them into an “O” shape. Relax your lips. Repeat. Make sure that the rest of your face is still relaxed. Breathe gently…
Notice all of the muscles in your body…. notice how relaxed your muscles feel. Allow any last bits of tension to drain away with each exhale of your breath. Enjoy the relaxation you are experiencing. Notice your calm breathing…. your relaxed muscles…. When you have finished it is a good idea to stay sitting for a few minutes to really appreciate the sensation of relaxation. Try not to stand up too quickly as you may tense up again. Also your blood pressure drops when you relax, so if you stand up too quickly you may get dizzy.
When you are ready to return to your usual level of alertness and awareness, realize you can take this calm and refreshed energy into your day… slowly begin to re-awaken your body. Wiggle your toes and fingers. Swing your arms gently. Shrug your shoulders. Stretch if you like.
The more you practice the full PMR the more you will get to know the areas in your body that become tense. Once you have practiced a while, it can be modified by just choosing the muscle groups that you know are tense, then tensing those, hold it, and release.
Jane Weiss, LCSW