Our everyday lives are frequently busy and packed with activities, and we may not always be able to find time to relax and allow ourselves to deal appropriately with any stress in the body and anxiety in the mind. There does exist, however, a wonderful method to ease tension in the body: one which links body and mind, and which therefore also eases a troubled mind.
It is known as progressive muscle relaxation and was created by psychologist and physiologist Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s as a way to help his patients deal with anxiety.
Simply put, it consists of actively and purposefully tightening each muscle in the body singly, then being aware of loosening it and releasing the tension that was previously held there. It can be practised by anyone, as part of a meditative procedure or as a stress-relieving exercise. When practised regularly, it will increase awareness of tension and also awareness of how to relieve it, and can be beneficial in controlling stress, anxiety, insomnia, and more.
How are you feeling right now? Just think physically for the moment. Are you in a position to perform a little scan of your body? Start at the top of your brow, moving down through your cheeks to your jaw, then think about your neck and shoulders. My shoulders definitely hold tension sometimes; I can feel it on many occasions. Do you feel any tension so far? Allocate a mark out of 5, where 1 is soft and relaxed, and 5 is tense and rigid. Or are you lucky enough to be fully relaxed?! Maybe you are, because you’ve just finished a yoga or Pilates class—if so, then I’m jealous because I am MISSING them after a week of non-activity!
Now move your body-scan down to your arms and hands – are they soft, or are the muscles a bit tense, maybe after a lot of typing, or perhaps pushing a pushchair? Now your back—strained from sitting at a desk maybe? What about your buttocks? Tight and right, as my Pilates instructor says, or tight and tense?! Legs and feet next—I’m unsure as to whether I hold much tension there, but this is why a full-body scan is so important now and again, to ensure we are always listening to our bodies and we know what’s happening, everywhere.
What did you find? Why are you tense?
So, what did you observe? Whenever I do a full-body scan, my jaw is quite often a sad 5, I just can’t help it sometimes when I’m concentrating, focusing hard. I would generally have to give my brow a 4 for similar reasons. My neck and shoulders are probably often wavering around 3-4.
Typing at my desk contributes to the tension, but is there more to me holding my muscles so tightly and being so overwound? Of course there is—right now, I’m worrying about what to cook for tea, I have ‘mum guilt’ about whether I’m doing enough fun Hallowe’en activities with my daughter in half-term, I’m concerned about a number of things if I dig deep enough. All of this angst contributes to my not be being as calm and relaxed as I could be. So if this technique can provide me with a way to ease the tension, I’m all for it.
Edmund Jacobson (1888-1983) held the firm belief that tension in the body is rooted in the mind. He became interested in the display of bodily tension at the age of 10, when he witnessed a seriously damaging fire in an hotel in his home town of Chicago. At that time, he observed that he was not concerned with how he felt, but rather how others showed their fear. He began his career in psychological and neurological studies at Northwestern University, progressed through Harvard then accepted a fellowship at Cornell. After completing this fellowship, he returned to Chicago to join the Department of Physiology at the university there, and continued his research into muscle relaxation, introspection, and the relationship between the mind and the motor system in the body.
“Tension is part and parcel of what we call the mind. Tension does not exist by itself, but is reflexively integrated into the total organism. The patterns in our muscles vary from moment to moment, constituting in part the modus operandi of our thinking and engage muscles variously all over our body, just as do our grossly visible movements. If a patient imagines he is rowing a boat, we see rhythmic patterns from the arms, shoulders, back and legs as he engages in this act of imagination. The movements…are miniscule.”
A wonderful feature of PMR is that you can literally just lie on the floor or relax on your favourite comfy sofa and begin, alone. To compare it with yoga, for example: Yoga is practised and loved many and some particular variations can be incredibly relaxing, calming, and foster a meditative state, for example Yin yoga, but yoga is generally a guided practice, at least until the practitioner becomes semi-proficient. Likewise, Pilates. However, PMR is something you can take 15-20 minutes out of your busy day to do alone, and find some peace.
How to do it
Find a calm, quiet place, ideally somewhere you won’t be disturbed.
- Forehead: While inhaling, squeeze the muscles in the forehead tightly for 10-15 seconds. Feel them becoming tenser and tenser. Now release this tension slowly while exhaling until your forehead is completely relaxed.
- Jaw: Tense the muscles in your jaw while inhaling for 10-15 seconds. Now release the tension while exhaling, noticing how the jaw is relaxing.
- Neck and shoulders: Raise the shoulders up towards the head and neck to increase the tension held there and hold for 15 seconds. Slowly loosen the muscles over 30 seconds and observe the difference.
- Continue as above with first arms and hands, then buttocks, then legs, then feet.
- When loosening your muscles, try to visualise the stress and/or anxiety that’s held within you flowing out of your body as you relax. Really focus on the changes you feel in your mind as your body releases tension.
Regularly practised, it will give you a greater sense of control over your body’s response to anxiety.
Studies and medical benefits
Studies have proven this deep relaxation technique to assist in symptom relief in various conditions, including headaches, high blood pressure, even cancer and epileptic seizures (stress is a common trigger for seizures).
For example, a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion proved that mothers trained in Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation technique could benefit from improved sleep quality at postpartum period.
Another study, this time published in the Journal of Nursing Education and Practice in 2014, proved PMR to be effective in reducing the frequency and number of epileptic seizures experienced by a group of adolescents who had been trained in Jacobson’s PMR technique. Their stress levels were measured before, during and after the experiment, and were shown to decrease significantly.
PMR seems a fantastically simple exercise that can promote tranquillity and calmness, and having tried it a few times over the course of the past week, I can certainly attest to this. I have found that after just clenching my fists for 15 seconds and slowly loosening them, I release tension from what seems like my whole body, and then anxiety from my mind. It’s really worth trying. So take some time to relax, and enjoy it—you don’t need long. I’m going to lie on a mat on the floor now and find serenity.
-  Recognition of the efficacy of relaxation program on sleep quality of mothers with premature infants – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4946274/
-  Effect of progressive relaxation technique in reducing epileptic seizures among adolescents – http://www.sciedu.ca/journal/index.php/jnep/article/view/3741