Common steps and sub-activities

Progressive muscle relaxation

Type

Voluntary.

Overall mechanism

suppression

Introduction and description

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that uses alternate tensing and relaxing of muscles.

It involves both a physical and mental component.  The physical component involves the tensing and relaxing of muscle groups over the legs, abdomen, chest, arms and face. With the eyes closed and in a sequential pattern, a tension in a given muscle group is purposefully held for approximately 10 seconds and then released for 20 seconds before continuing with the next muscle group.  This helps to reduce nervous sensations as each muscle group is ‘relaxed and forgotten’.

The mental component focuses on the difference between the feelings of the tension and relaxation. Because the eyes are closed, one is forced to concentrate on the sensation of tension and relaxation. This helps to still the mind as thoughts are diverted from reasoning and memory and are thus stilled

Background

This same technique is used extensively in medical circles by physical therapists to reduce anxiety,  where the techique is known as “Jacobson's Progressive Relaxation”  - named after American physician Edmund Jacobson who developed it for medical use in the early 1920s. Jacobson argued that since muscle tension accompanies anxiety, one can reduce anxiety by learning how to relax the muscular tension.

Jacobson trained his patients to voluntarily relax certain muscles in their body in order to reduce anxiety symptoms, but he also found that the relaxation procedure was effective against ulcers, insomnia, and hypertension.

In modern medicine, the technique has also proved effective in reducing acute anxiety in people with Schizophrenia.

Method

You can use a recording of the steps to take during the exercise and this helps a great deal, as the recording can be precisely timed .  It has the added benefit that with a recording you have no need to remember the steps.  If you use a recording ,  you can use headphones both to transmit the instructions but also to block out other sound.  Don’t use those weeny little plug in types, use some big comfortable rubber or fluffy based muffler type headphones that provide a minimum of distraction.

Progressive relaxation involves alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles.

With the eyes closed, the muscles are tensed for 10 seconds and relaxed for 20 seconds sequentially through various parts of the body.

You can repeat this process until you are totally and absolutely relaxed and have lost track of any nervous sensations from your body.

Focus entirely upon the actions of tensing and releasing, tensing and releasing.  If you are using recorded instructions [recommended] you can keep repeating the statement ‘tensing and releasing, tensing and releasing’ concentrating on this as though it were a mantra.

The following steps are then completed [note that this can be recorded and played back to give you a set of instructions to follow]:

  • Feet and calves:  Stretch back all toes and tense both feet and calves at the same time for ten seconds, then relax. Curl toes downward and repeat, tensing both feet and calves, then relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Thighs: Tense both thighs, hold for ten seconds, then relax. Press down with both heels and tense them again, then relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Hips and Buttocks: Push buttocks back into the chair and tense them, hold for ten seconds, then relax. Rock hips forward slowly and tense for ten seconds, then relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Whole of Legs: Tense all the muscles in the whole of your hips, legs, and feet.  Hold for ten seconds, then relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Stomach and Lower Back: Push out your stomach and tense all stomach and lower back muscles. Hold for ten seconds and then relax. Suck in stomach and tense lower back muscles. Hold for ten seconds, relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Chest and Upper Back: Arch shoulders forward while exhaling and caving in your chest. Tense all upper back and shoulder muscles, tense for ten seconds, then relax. Push shoulders back and take a deep breath while pushing out your chest. Tense all upper back and chest muscles. Hold for ten seconds, and then relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Arms and Shoulders: Tense your shoulders, arms, and hands, making tight fists. Tense and hold for ten seconds, then relax. Curl your forearms and fists in towards shoulders, wrists curling in. Tense and hold for ten seconds, then relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Face and Head:  With eyes closed, roll head back, open mouth wide, and screw up your face, tensing all the muscles in your head and face. Hold for ten seconds, then relax. Smile widely while screwing up your whole face and eyelids, tensing all facial, scalp, and jaw muscles. Hold for ten seconds, and then relax. Frown deeply while screwing up your face and tensing all scalp, jaw, and facial muscles.  Hold for ten seconds, then relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Jaw: With your head in a balanced resting position, push lower jaw straight out.   Tense jaw and hold for ten seconds, then relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Neck l:  Without tensing, arch your neck forward slowly and press your chin down onto your chest. Hold it there for ten seconds, breathing normally.  Then slowly relax it back to its normal resting position. (If you have neck tension problems, hold chin on chest for longer.) Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Neck 2:  Without tensing, slowly let your head roll back and push your chin straight up. Keep pushing your chin up, but do not tense any neck muscles. Hold for ten seconds, breathing normally. Then slowly relax back to your balanced resting position. (If you have neck tension, hold for longer.) Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Neck 3:  With your head in its normal resting position, slowly grit your teeth and tense all your neck muscles, feeling the tension spreading through your neck and up into your skull. Hold for ten seconds, and then relax. Pause and feel the tension draining away.
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently for 20 seconds
  • Full-Body Stretch: Perform a full-body stretch. Gently stretch and tense as much of your body as you can. Tense and hold for ten seconds, then deeply relax your whole body. Pause and feel the tension leaving your body, like fluid draining away. Take your time over this. 
  • Relax and breathe in and out gently

Repeat this sequence of steps until you have reached a state in which there is no tension anywhere and you are deeply relaxed

Further reading

  • Jacobson, E. (1938). Progressive relaxation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Craske & Barlow (2006), Worry, Oxford University Press, Inc
  • Chen WC; Chu H; Lu RB; Chou YH; Chen CH; Chang YC; O'Brien AP; Chou KR. (Aug 2009), "Efficacy of progressive muscle relaxation training in reducing anxiety in patients with acute schizophrenia", Journal of Clinical Nursing 18 (15)