Stress Management: Doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Introduction

Have you ever had an aching back or pain in your neck when you were anxious or stressed? When you have anxiety or stress in your life, one of the ways your body responds is with muscle tension. Progressive muscle relaxation is a method that helps relieve that tension.

  • In progressive muscle relaxation, you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and you relax them as you breathe out. You work on your muscle groups in a certain order.
  • When your body is physically relaxed, you cannot feel anxious. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation for a few weeks will help you get better at this skill, and in time you will be able to use this method to relieve stress.
  • When you first start, it may help to use an audio recording until you learn all the muscle groups in order. Check your local library or a bookstore for progressive muscle relaxation audio recordings.
  • If you have trouble falling asleep, this method may also help with your sleep problems.
 

Progressive muscle relaxation is a method to help you relax. You do a series of exercises in which you tense your muscles as you breathe in and relax them as you breathe out. You work on your muscle groups in a certain order.

Test Your Knowledge

Progressive muscle relaxation is an exercise where you breathe slowly to relax your muscles.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    When you do progressive muscle relaxation, you do a series of exercises in which you tense your muscles as you breathe in and relax them as you breathe out.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    When you do progressive muscle relaxation, you do a series of exercises in which you tense your muscles as you breathe in and relax them as you breathe out.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Progressive muscle relaxation can reduce anxiety, stress, and muscle tension, and it may help if you have trouble falling asleep. It can help ease headaches by focusing on the muscles of the head, neck, and jaw. As you learn how your "tense" muscles feel and how your "relaxed" muscles feel, you may be able to tell when you need to relax.

Progressive muscle relaxation is easy to do. And if you can find a place to lie down and get comfortable, you can do it anytime you need it.

Test Your Knowledge

People who have anxiety, stress, muscle tension, or trouble falling asleep may benefit from progressive muscle relaxation.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Progressive muscle relaxation can help relieve anxiety, stress, and muscle tension. It may also help you fall asleep.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    Progressive muscle relaxation can help relieve anxiety, stress, and muscle tension. It may also help you fall asleep.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

The procedure

You can use an audio recording to help you focus on each muscle group, or you can learn the order of muscle groups and do the exercises from memory. Choose a place where you won't be interrupted and where you can lie down on your back and stretch out comfortably, such as a carpeted floor.

  1. Breathe in, and tense the first muscle group (hard but not to the point of pain or cramping) for 4 to 10 seconds.
  2. Breathe out, and suddenly and completely relax the muscle group (do not relax it gradually).
  3. Relax for 10 to 20 seconds before you work on the next muscle group. Notice the difference between how the muscles feel when they are tense and how they feel when they are relaxed.
  4. When you are finished with all of the muscle groups, count backward from 5 to 1 to bring your focus back to the present.

After you have learned how to tense and relax each muscle group, here's something else to try. When you have a very tense muscle, you can practice tensing and relaxing that muscle area without going through the whole routine.

The muscle groups

The following is a list of the muscle groups in order and how to tense them. Remember to lie down when you do this.

Muscle group

What to do

Hands

Clench them.

Wrists and forearms

Extend them, and bend your hands back at the wrist.

Biceps and upper arms

Clench your hands into fists, bend your arms at the elbows, and flex your biceps.

Shoulders

Shrug them (raise toward your ears).

Forehead

Wrinkle it into a deep frown.

Around the eyes and bridge of the nose

Close your eyes as tightly as you can. (Remove contact lenses before you start the exercise.)

Cheeks and jaws

Smile as widely as you can.

Around the mouth

Press your lips together tightly. (Check your face for tension. You just want to use your lips.)

Back of the neck

Press the back of your head against the floor or chair.

Front of the neck

Touch your chin to your chest. (Try not to create tension in your neck and head.)

Chest

Take a deep breath, and hold it for 4 to 10 seconds.

Back

Arch your back up and away from the floor or chair.

Stomach

Suck it into a tight knot. (Check your chest and stomach for tension.)

Hips and buttocks

Press your buttocks together tightly.

Thighs

Clench them hard.

Lower legs

Point your toes toward your face. Then point your toes away, and curl them downward at the same time. (Check the area from your waist down for tension.)

Test Your Knowledge

When you first start, it may be helpful to use an audio recording until you learn all the muscle groups in order.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    An audio recording can be helpful at first to guide you through the muscle groups. Using an audio recording may also help you tense and relax your muscles for the right amount of time. After a while, you may be able to do this on your own.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    An audio recording can be helpful at first to guide you through the muscle groups. Using an audio recording may also help you tense and relax your muscles for the right amount of time. After a while, you may be able to do this on your own.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have learned about progressive muscle relaxation, you are ready to give it a try. Check your local library, websites that sell audio programs, or a bookstore for progressive muscle relaxation audio recordings.

If you want to try another other relaxation technique, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation.
Click here to view an Actionset.Stress Management: Doing Guided Imagery to Relax.
Click here to view an Actionset.Stress Management: Doing Meditation.
Click here to view an Actionset.Stress Management: Practicing Yoga to Relax.
Click here to view an Actionset.Stress Management: Relaxing Your Mind and Body.

Return to topic:

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Anspaugh DJ, et al. (2011). Coping with and managing stress. In Wellness: Concepts and Applications, 8th ed., pp. 307–340. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Freeman L (2009). Meditation. In L Freeman, ed., Mosby’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Research-Based Approach, 3rd ed., pp. 158–188. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.
  • Freeman L (2009). Relaxation therapy. In Mosby's Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Research-Based Approach, 3rd ed., pp. 129–157. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Patrice Burgess, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Steven Locke, MD - Psychiatry
Last Revised May 15, 2012

Last Revised: May 15, 2012

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