Progressive Muscle Relaxation To Relieve Stress + Reduce Stress

by Buffy Owens

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If you suffer from complex pain, then you know what it's like to feel tense. Even tending to your home can feel like it takes excessive physical effort. And, the quality of your efforts is impacted by your ability to relax.

There are a variety of relaxation techniques and activities to choose from. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is one that is easy to learn and yields a variety of benefits — developing a sense of well-being, lowered blood pressure, decreased muscle tension, less anxiety and fatigue.

The general intention of Progressive Muscle Relaxation is to hone in on your ability to relax by intentionally comparing relaxed and tense states. In turn, this can help to reduce anxiety and stress by bringing awareness to and then releasing the physical aspects (i.e. muscle tension).

Muscle tension is commonly associated with stress, anxiety, and fear. It’s a natural part of the fight, flight, freeze, and delight process that helps our bodies prepare for potentially dangerous situations. Even though some of those situations may not actually be dangerous, our bodies respond in the same way. Unfortunately, the stress response can become chronic. And chronic stress can be hazardous to your health.

I bet there are times when you don’t even notice how tense your muscles have become until you start to ache — perhaps you clench your teeth slightly so your jaw feels tight, or maybe your shoulders or back start acting up. Well, I’m here to tell you that there are many tell-tell signs that stress is taking over — either as an immediate response or as an ongoing state. Just take a look at the two lists below.

Physical Signs Of Chronic Stress

  • Increased or irregular blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Tight muscles
  • Restlessness
  • Shallow, rapid breathing
  • Rapid pulse
  • Change in blood sugar
  • Tight throat
  • Cold extremities
  • Sweating
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Blurred vision
  • Headaches
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Digestive upset
  • Weight change
  • Lack of energy
  • Back or neck ache
  • Knot in stomach

Emotional Signs Of Chronic Stress

  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Boredom
  • Feeling of ‘emptiness’
  • Lack of concentration
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Confusion
  • Worrying
  • Fear
  • Discouragement
  • Decreased libido
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Lowered psychological resistance

Like anything in life, growing your ability to calm takes practice. Taking time to practice the Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique for a few weeks, will help you to develop the capacity to use it quickly and effectively whenever you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Add in a little dose of mindfulness that includes noticing any of the above symptoms and …voilà you’ll refine your ability to notice what your feeling and to have the ability to shift your state when it’s necessary.

A quick word for the wise:
Don’t be in a rush to shift your state.
Take a moment to feel your stress response.
Only then actively seek to relax or calm yourself.

Now, back to the Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique.

There are two basic parts to progressive relaxation: 1) the activation and holding of a specific muscle group, and 2) the relaxation or letting go of the action with the exhale.


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Preparing For Relaxation:

When you are first beginning to practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercises, start by doing the practice resting on your back on a firm surface if possible. You can place a padding or pillow beneath your head and a pillow or two under your knees. This will allow some of your postural muscle to release so that you can more easily access the calm/relaxed state.

Keep in mind:

  • Physical injuries. If you have any injuries, or a history of physical problems that may cause muscle pain, always consult your doctor before you start.
  • Select your surroundings. Minimize the distraction to your five senses. Such as turning off your phone, the television, and turning down the lights.
  • Make yourself comfortable. Sit or lay on a surface that is firm, yet comfortable. Make sure you have support for your head. Wear loose clothing, and take off your shoes.
  • Internal mechanics. Avoid practicing after big, heavy meals, and do not practice after consuming any intoxicants, such as alcohol.

The Progressive Muscle Relaxation Process

It’s important to note that there are different ways of practicing progressive relaxation. The one we’ll explore to encourages a slow release of the muscles. However, during another session, you might want to explore a quick release rather than a gradual unfurling.

First, bring your attention to a muscle group, I suggest starting at your feet and working your way up. As you focus on a muscle group, simply notice what you feel — your contact with the floor, a general sense of tension or ease. Then gradually begin tensing the muscle group; hold that tension for five seconds. Then relax your muscles with a long, slow exhale so that the tension feels like it’s draining from your body. As you move through the process, tell yourself or visualize “all the tension is draining from my body.” After you release a muscle group, pause and rest in this relaxation for at least 10 seconds before you go on. This can be repeated several times before moving on to the next muscle group.

1. Right foot and lower leg – Keeping the heel down, curl the toes back until tension can be felt in the ankle and calf muscle.

2. Right upper leg – Tense the top of the upper leg (quadriceps) and the bottom of the upper leg (hamstring).

3. Left foot, lower leg and upper leg – Repeat the process identified in numbers 1 and 2.

4. Hips and buttocks – Squeeze your buttock muscles

5. Right hand and forearm – With the palm down, lift the hand until tension can be felt in the top of the hand, the wrist and the forearm.

6. Right upper arm – Tense the bicep and tricep.

7. Right shoulder – Shrug the shoulder toward the ear and roll the head toward the shoulder so that shoulder and ear are touching.

8. Left hand and forearm, upper arm and shoulder – Repeat the process identified in numbers 5, 6 & 7.

9. Chest – Beginning with the abdominal area, fill the lungs with air while feeling the tension in the chest area. Breathe out from the top of the lungs (upper chest) down through a contracted abdomen.

10. Neck – Be careful as you tense these muscles. Face forward and then push your head gently into the floor.

11. Jaw area – Without damaging the teeth, bite down until tension can be felt in the jaw area.

12. Mouth – Purse the lips as if whistling.

13. Eyes and cheeks. Squeeze your eyes tight shut.

14. Forehead – Wrinkle the brow.

You’ll likely feel more relaxed at the end of your first session. However, it can take several weeks to attain a full relaxation response. Don’t worry, you’ll make progress daily as you acquire the skill. You’ll also begin to redefine what relaxation is to you as you deepen your capacity to calm and quiet your system.


Progressive Muscle Relaxation Precautions

If you have a history of muscle spasms or ongoing pain from an injury, talk to your doctor first. There’s a chance that tensing your muscles too tight could make your muscle spasms worse.

Also, if you have low blood pressure then you’ll want to get up very slowly when doing this or any other relaxation exercise. Make sure to transition to lying on your side and rest there for a moment. Then come up to sit, and pause there for a moment. Finally, slowly find your way up to stand when you feel ready. Remember that standing up too quickly could make you feel lightheaded or faint.