Progressive Muscle Relaxation: what it is, and why I love it

I talk a lot about the benefits of regular physical activity, and science agrees with me! Besides being overall good for your health (cardiovascular and muscle systems for starters), exercise provides a boost of endorphins which make us feel better and more relaxed. But what about days where you can’t make it to the gym, or times when you just need a quick stress reliever? Enter Progressive Muscle Relaxation, or PMR. PMR is easy to do, discrete, and can be adapted to a wide variety of ages and abilities (a post on PMR specifically for kids is coming up next). It’s not going to replace a real daily workout, but it is great for those busy days where you feel stressed and just need a quick break.

Here’s how PMR works: You will tense several muscle groups throughout your body vigorously, for about 5 seconds per group, and then suddenly release the tension and voila! your muscle will instantly feel relaxed. While you need to really tighten those muscles in order to feel maximum relaxation, don’t strain; if you’re feeling pain then ease up right away. If you have any pain or discomfort at any of the targeted muscle groups feel free to omit that step and move on to the next muscle area. Some people like to visualize the muscles tensing and a wave of relaxation flowing over them as they release that tension. And keep breathing throughout the exercise!

Here’s a simple script to get you started:

  • Begin by finding a comfortable position either sitting or lying down in a location where you will not be interrupted for 5-10 minutes.
  • Take a deep breath through your abdomen, hold for a few second, and exhale slowly.
  • Tighten the muscles in your forehead by raising your eyebrows as high as you can. Hold for about five seconds. Then abruptly release.
  • Now smile widely, feeling your mouth and cheeks tense. Hold for about 5 seconds, and release.
  • Next, tighten your eye muscles by squinting your eyelids tightly shut. Hold for about 5 seconds, and release.
  • Gently pull your head back as if to look at the ceiling. Hold for about 5 seconds, and release, feeling the tension melting away.
  • Now, tightly, but without straining, clench your fists and hold this position for about 5 seconds, and release.
  • Now, flex your biceps. Feel that buildup of tension. You may even visualize that muscle tightening. Hold for about 5 seconds, and release.
  • Now tighten your triceps by extending your arms out and locking your elbows. Hold for about 5 seconds, and release.
  • Now lift your shoulders up as if they could touch your ears. Hold for about 5 seconds, and quickly release, feeling their heaviness. Pause for about 10 seconds.
  • Tense your upper back by pulling your shoulders back trying to make your shoulder blades touch. Hold for about 5 seconds, and release.
  • Tighten your chest by taking a deep breath in, hold for about 5 seconds, and exhale, blowing out all the tension.
  • Now tighten the muscles in your stomach by sucking in. Hold for about 5 seconds, and release.
  • Gently arch your lower back. Hold for about 5 seconds, then relax.
  • Tighten your buttocks. Hold for about 5 seconds and release, imagining your hips falling loosen.
  • Tighten your thighs by pressing your knees together, as if you were holding a penny between them. Hold for about 5 seconds…and release.
  • Now flex your feet, pulling your toes towards you and feeling the tension in your calves. Hold for about 5 seconds, and relax, feel the weight of your legs sinking down.
  • Curl your toes under tensing your feet. Hold for about 5 seconds, release.
  • Take three more deep breaths, and enjoy the feeling of relaxation throughout your body!

If you try PMR a few times, you’ll quickly realize that some muscle groups provide you with a lot more of that relaxation feeling than others. Excellent, now you know where you tend to hold stress and you can focus on just those areas for future PMR sessions. For example, I personally get the most relief from working on my shoulders and fists, so when I’m extra busy I just do those areas a couple of times and I’m good. You may also notice that you will start to automatically flex those muscles when you are stressful situations; rush hour on C-470 improved a lot for me when I started doing PMR instead of screaming at other drivers. Give it a try, and prepare to be amazed (and relaxed)!


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