Using Progressive Muscle Exercises to Calm the Body and Mind

By Robert Common, Managing Partner, The Beekeeper

A common occurrence when experiencing stress is to feel parts of your body tightening up. For example, your jaw clenching when you’re frustrated, or shoulder tightness after a taxing day. When stress builds up over time, it causes tension and tightness to build up in your body. Finding ways to relieve this tension is crucial for wellbeing.


Progressive muscle exercises, described below, are a way to use your body as a stress management tool for relieving tension, calming your mind, and promoting relaxation1.

What are Progressive Muscle Exercises?
Progressive muscle exercises are a relaxation technique that helps you release the tension you’re knowingly or unknowingly holding on to in your body. Some theorists say that without relieving this tension, you cannot truly relax1,2.


These exercises focus on relieving tension in different parts of your body1. The primary areas most commonly affected tend to be your shoulders, around your mouth (cheeks, jaw), your neck, and your hands and toes. However, tension can be stored anywhere in your body, so these exercises will be useful even if you’re feeling tension elsewhere.

How do Progressive Muscle Exercises Promote Relaxation?
These exercises work to promote relaxation by decreasing the effect stress has on your mind and body, and importantly, by releasing the hold that stress has over your body. The general method for performing these exercises is to slowly tense a group of muscles as you breath in, and then slowly relax those same muscles as you breath out3.


By releasing tension, this process has the ability to relieve stress and anxiety1-3. Using progressive muscle exercises for this purpose is known as “Progressive Muscle Relaxation” or “PMR”.

How to Perform Progressive Muscle Relaxation at Home
Find a quiet area free of distractions where you can sit or lay down comfortably. Relax your body, lay your arms on your lap, and take a few deep breaths. Once you feel calm, you’ll start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively working your way up to your neck and head. Alternatively, you can tense your muscles starting from your head and moving down to your toes. Do whichever feels more comfortable for you. During each step, breathe slowly and evenly, and note the way it feels to have the tension leaving your body1,3.


Make sure when doing this that you focus on only one area at a time, leaving the rest of your body relaxed.


Feet:
lift your toes upward and flex your feet. Curl your toes and hold them in place for about 10-15 seconds. Slowly release the tension in your feet over the course of 30 seconds.


Legs:
squeeze and tense your calf muscles for about 10-15 seconds. Slowly release this tension over the course of 30 seconds.


Thighs and Buttocks:
squeeze your thighs and your buttocks and hold this tension for 10-15 seconds. Slowly release this tension over the course of 30 seconds.


Abdomen:
clench your abdominal muscles and take a deep breath. Hold for 5 seconds and release slowly while deeply exhaling.


Chest:
take a deep breath and tighten your chest. Hold it for 5 seconds and slowly release this tightness with a long exhale.


Arms and Hands:
bring both of your hands into fists. Hold them toward your chest and tense your arms. Hold this position for 10-15 seconds and then release slowly over the course of 30 seconds.


Neck and Shoulders:
raise your shoulders up toward your ears and hold tightly for 10-15 seconds. Slowly release this tension over the course of 30 seconds.


Jaw and Mouth:
tightly close your lips together for 10-15 seconds and then release over 30 seconds. Smile as widely as you can for 10-15 seconds and then release slowly over 30 seconds.


Forehead:
wrinkle and squeeze the muscles in your forehead tightly and hold this position for 10-15 seconds. Slowly release this tension over 30 seconds.

Who can benefit from Progressive Muscle Relaxation?
Relaxation techniques like PMR can help anyone cope with everyday stressful experiences. Additionally, there is scientific evidence supporting PMR’s ability to aid in symptom relief for people who deal with sleep issues4,5, anxiety1-3, and other common issues brought on by stress such as issues with attention, concentration, emotion regulation, and memory3,5,6.


PMR is an easy, free, low-risk relaxation technique that can be done anywhere and is easy to incorporate into your stress management and self-care routine. With regular practice, PMR can lower the overall tension you feel in your body as well as your overall stress levels.

References:
1) https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2225
2) https://www.utoledo.edu/studentaffairs/counseling/anxietytoolbox/pmr.html
3) https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/relaxation-technique/art-20045368
4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279320/
5) https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene/relaxation-exercises-to-help-fall-asleep
6) https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax

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