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Stress Management Through Progressive Muscle Relaxation

January 5th, 2022


Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a mindfulness technique where people tense targeted muscle groups in the body for several seconds and then relax them. Typically, people begin by tightening the muscles in their toes or feet, and then gradually move up the body, through each major muscle group, until they reach their facial muscles. After working through relaxing each muscle group, you will feel more relaxed.

The thought process behind this technique is that learning to identify the ways muscles feel when they are physically relaxed versus tense, teaches people to recognize when they are stressed and gives them a way to intervene.

What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation? 

How Does PMR Help?

PMR is an evidence-based treatment for anxiety disorders. I often incorporate progressive muscle relaxation into my work with clients who are looking for tools to manage stress and anxiety because it is a tangible skill that people can utilize outside of therapy. I also like to introduce this technique to clients who are struggling to fall asleep due to racing thoughts as it is a way people can prepare their minds and bodies for rest.

In addition, progressive muscle relaxation is a component of treatments for other disorders, such as PTSD. For example, it is an essential component of Trauma-Focused—Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), which is a widely researched therapy for teenagers and children who have experienced trauma.

Similarly, it can be a practical tool for people in early recovery from addiction, who are trying to incorporate healthier coping skills into their daily life. Likewise, progressive muscle relaxation can help people manage certain medical issues, such as high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and insomnia.

How Does PMR Help?

How to Practice PMR?

PMR can be done sitting or lying down. Some prefer to practice progressive muscle relaxation with their eyes closed, while others choose to leave their eyes open. It is up to you to decide what you find more comfortable.

Additionally, it is important to remove as many distractions as possible while practicing progressive muscle relaxation. It may help to play soothing music to create a peaceful atmosphere.

When you are practicing progressive muscle relaxation, remember to hold your breath when you are tensing your muscles and then exhale deeply when you relax your muscles. The pairing of exhaling out and the releasing of your muscles will lead to deeper relaxation.

Apps for guided meditation have been growing in popularity recently, and some offer PMR. The apps I recommend to my clients are Headspace and Insight Timer. However, be aware that Headspace requires a paid subscription after you complete the first ten beginner sessions. Another option is searching for progressive muscle relaxation on YouTube, which offers a myriad of convenient videos.

How to Practice PMR?

Below is a brief script below with instructions for people who would like to practice this on their own:

  1. Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, with both feet on the ground. You can put your hands on your lap, either face up or face down—whatever you find more comfortable. If you’d like to close your eyes, feel free to do that now. Or, if you’d prefer to leave them open, then stare at a spot on the ground in front of you.
  2. Start by taking a deep breath, inhaling through your nose, and then slowly exhaling out through your mouth. Bring your attention to your feet. Squeeze the muscle in your feet and toes like you are trying to grip the floor. Hold this for 10 seconds. Remember to breathe.
  3. Bring your focus to your calf muscles. Lift your feet slightly off the ground, pointing your toes forward to tense your calves. Hold this for 10 seconds. Release your calves as you feel the muscles relax.
  4. Focus on your glutes and upper leg muscles. Squeeze these muscles for 10 seconds, as you remember to breathe. Relax. Feel the muscle tension flowing out of your glutes and upper leg muscles.
  5. Focus on your abdominal muscles. Tighten your abdomen, again for 10 seconds. Remember to breathe. Release your abdominal muscles, as you feel the body relax.
  6. Bring your attention to your back muscles. Tense your back muscles for 10 seconds. Remember to breathe. Release your back muscles as you feel the tension flowing out.
  7. Focus on your chest muscles. Try to tighten your chest muscles as tightly as you can for 10 seconds. Relax your chest muscles as you feel the tension oozing out.
  8. Focus on your arms and hands. Hold your arms and hands out in front of you and squeeze your hands in a fist like you are trying to get all the juice out of a lemon. Hold this for a count of 10 seconds.
  9. Bring your attention to your shoulder muscles. Try to bring your shoulders up to your ears, holding this for 10 seconds. Remember to breathe. Relax, as you feel the tension flowing out of your shoulder muscles.
  10. Focus on your facial muscles. Squeeze the muscles in your face like you are trying to make it as small as possible. Hold this for 10 seconds. You can take one last big deep breath, and then when you are ready, you can open your eyes and bring your focus back to your surroundings.

Written By: Sam Donham, LCPC, MEd, NCC

Clarity Clinic

At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic at (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.

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