“Walk lightly through life, with your head held high, your shoulders soft, and your breath centered in your heart.”
When living in a chronic stressed state people often fail to notice the physical tension that has become their normal state.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation teaches us to become aware of tension and of how to release it. By first distinguishing the difference between the two states we can then access how to relax the muscles. Teaching the body to relax helps to maintain health by switching off our fight or flight response and triggering our relaxation response. The technique was developed by American physician Dr Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s as a practice to monitor and control the state of muscular tension. The technique involves intentionally bringing tension into a specific muscle group and then releasing to allow the area to relax. The technique can help you to lower overall tension and stress levels, improve sleep, and reduce physical tension.
Ideally the technique is best practiced in a comfortable chair or laying down (laying down is likely to increase the chance of falling asleep which can be useful if that is the aim, but the goal is to learn to relax whilst awake).
You should NOT feel any pain so if this happens do not continue. It may be possible to just practice the visualising of relaxation part to this exercise (step 2) and leave out the tensing of the muscle part (step 1).
If in doubt over any condition, ALWAYS consult your doctor first.
Make sure you have plenty of time after to come back into a fully awake state before you attempt to get back into your day.
Wear loose, comfortable clothing and remove your shoes.
Once you are in your comfortable clothing and position, start the practice by taking several deep, easy breaths. You may also like to do a body scan of briefly observing your body from the feet all the way up and through to your head to observe how your body feels and if you notice any tension areas.
The technique works through the whole body one area at a time.
First, focus on the specific muscle area (for example your right hand) and then take a slow inhale as you progressively squeeze that area as firmly as you comfortably can. It is important to really feel the tension in the muscle area.
As you exhale, let go of all of the tension created in the specific muscle area. Feel the muscle area easing out as it relaxes. Observe the softness in this area for several seconds before moving onto the next muscle area.
Notice the difference between how you felt with the tension in the muscle and the softer relaxed state. It is best to start at one area of the body and work all the way up or down until you have done all parts, so for example starting at the feet and working up to the head.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Variations:
If you find it uncomfortable to tense the muscles then you can practice the relaxing part on its own. To do this, work through the body in the same sequence but instead of tensing the muscle as you inhale, simply inhale without tensing and then exhale relaxing (or simply visualising relaxing) the muscle area. There will obviously be less difference between the two states but it can still be very relaxing to practice the release only variation.
You can also use isolated sessions for when you are aware that you are becoming physically tense….so for example if you become aware that your neck and shoulders are getting tense whilst working at a computer then you can practice the technique of just doing the hands, arms, and neck and shoulder areas at your desk. Likewise if you are starting to feel a headache you could try the jaw, eyes and forehead areas.