Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Apr 13, 2022
progressive muscle relaxation

Feeling stressed or at your wit’s end seems to be a natural state of affairs over the past two years or so, given the pandemic, layoffs, children being home from school, and all manner of other disruptions.

Beyond the current hustle and bustle of everyday life, do you have trouble relaxing and focusing on work? How about falling asleep? Perhaps you just need an outlet for regular stress found in your family unit. An answer to these situations can be found in mindfulness and a practice known as progressive muscle relaxation. Mindfulness is a way of bringing current states into awareness. It is the process of attuning to your body by noticing thoughts, emotions, and potential behaviors that arise during a meditative-like state. The idea is to notice these things coming into your mind, acknowledge them, thank your brain for the input, and then proceed with your meditative practice of clearing your mind and noticing things that crop up.

In this post, we will employ a particular mindfulness technique known as progressive muscle relaxation. In this practice, the goal is to become more aware of your body and where you might be carrying stress in your body.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Find a comfortable space that is quiet and largely free of distractions. Sit with your feet on the ground and your hands in your lap, palms up. Take a few breaths in through your nose and gently out through your mouth. Then, start with your toes. Tense your toes and feet, feeling the muscles cramp. Hold this tension for 4-5 seconds and then relax your muscles. Duplicate this process a second time. After releasing the second time, notice how your feet feel. Remember the difference between tension and relaxation.

Next, tense your calf muscles for 4-5 seconds, then release, followed by a relaxation of those muscles and a mental note of the differences between the tensed/relaxed states. Move now to your thighs and hamstrings, and go through the same process that you completed for your calves and feet.

After tensing each muscle group a couple times, move to your abdomen. Squeeze your abs as tightly as you can and then release. How does you gut feel after that exercise? Again, note how your stomach feels when tensed opposed to relaxed. Move now to your shoulders, neck, and upper back. Tense; release. Note the difference.

Finally, move to your face. Furrow your eyebrows, purse your lips, and squeeze your eyes shut. Hold that expression for about five seconds, and relax your facial muscles. You can repeat this process as needed.

What was your experience of this exercise?

What sensation differences did you notice after each progressive tension and relaxation? The point of this exercise is to make you aware of how your body feels in a given position, with an emphasis on noticing your relaxed state and your agency in creating it. Another benefit of this practice is to become better aware of how you are holding your posture.

When we are relaxed, our nervous system reduces the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) produced, and we literally feel calmer. Additionally, this systematic relaxation can help during times of stress. Due to its largely inobtrusive features, it can be done anywhere, anytime. Other than maybe the progression of facial muscles due to the fact that you may get some curious looks, the rest of the exercise is amenable to most situations. Finally, the key to the benefits of this or any mindfulness technique is repetition. The more you practice this relaxation, the greater difference you will be able to feel regarding relaxation and bodily control.

In times of extreme stress or perhaps before a big moment like a presentation or meeting, try this progressive relaxation. Sense where in your body you feel the most disquiet and focus your tension and relaxation on that area. One key component that deserves attention is splitting your focus from the muscle tension to include your breath. The idea is to breathe in deep through your nose and out from your mouth as though you are blowing out a candle. Being aware of your breath is another mindfulness technique that is useful in regulating anxiety. Attention to breathing while working through the progressive relaxation can drastically affect anxiety, fear while promoting positive states of well-being. This practice can be accomplished in a single minute, or you can do the procedure for a longer duration depending on your need.

This is just one of several mindfulness, relaxation techniques that are beneficial. Try this one in your next moment of extreme stress, but know that, if it does not fit for you, there are many other exercises you can try to help you in difficult times.

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– Richard DeBord

M.S. Clinical Rehabilitation Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)

Mental Health Specialist | Email Richard

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