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Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Ready to relax?
Ready to relax?

Americans carry around a lot of tension. In order to capture and keep our attention, we're bombarded with texts, emails and alerts from news and social media companies. Those constant interruptions keep us in a heightened state of anxiety.

Can you imagine turning your phone off for an hour? Does the thought of that create alarm or a sense of panic in you? Unplugging and stepping away from all your “stuff”, even for a few minutes a day, can be very important to mental health. And there's a remarkably simple way to do it.

In May of 1929, the American physician Edmund Jacobson published a book called, Progressive Relaxation. It was the first time the word “relax” was used to mean “becoming less tense.” In that book, Mr. Jacobson included a detailed procedure known as “Progressive Muscle Relaxation” or PMR that taught people how to decrease muscular tension. Anyone who follows the program, can learn how to recognize, monitor and release unwanted tension as it occurs.

In the 90 years since that procedure was introduced, people have figured out ways to shorten it, while still retaining the effectiveness of the original. The most notable changes came from Joseph Wolpe, while working with war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Under the framework of systematic desensitization, Wolpe was able to compress the one-hour technique of Jacobson into something that took just 15 minutes.

The benefits of progressive muscle relaxation are significant. It's been shown to help people dealing with pain, by increasing blood flow as you relax and enhancing your metabolism. Insomniacs benefit by reducing muscular tension and interrupting the racing thought processes that interfere with sleep. It's also been used successfully to help athletes learn to focus attention on specific muscle groups and optimize their training. The long term effects include increased levels of self-esteem, improved concentration and a greater sense of control over moods.

This procedure is not an exercise. It's also not a form of yoga, self-hypnosis or meditation. It is a way of learning to identify muscles, recognize when they have tension, and release that tension. Here's how to do it.

Pick a time of day when you can set aside 15 uninterrupted minutes. Some people use this procedure to relax before bedtime, but the ultimate goal is to learn how to relax while you're awake. Make your environment as calm and comfortable as possible. That means shutting off outside distractions like the television, computers and phones.

Wear comfortable clothing that doesn't restrict your movement. Remove your shoes. You can do this while sitting in a chair or laying down. Unless you're trying to fall asleep, sitting in the chair is preferred. Take five slow, deep breaths before you begin.

You will be tensing a specific muscle group, such as the jaw, hand or shoulders, then relaxing it. It doesn't matter if you start at your head, your feet or your hands. The key is making sure to move through the various body parts in a relaxed and systematic way. We will be starting at the hands.

Inhale, tighten and contract the muscles in your hands by making a fist. Hold for five seconds. You should do this at about 70% of maximal effort. Don't do 100% to avoid overstraining. You can do this on one side at a time (unilaterally) or both sides at the same time (bilaterally). It's up to you, whichever feels better.

After about 5-10 seconds, relax your fist. Slowly exhale and let all the tightness flow out of the tensed muscles. As you breathe out, repeat a calming word or phrase like “calm” or “let go.” Over time simply repeating that word or phrase can help you into a calm and relaxed state.

As you breathe out, you should feel your muscles getting loose and limp. Remain relaxed for about 15-20 seconds. Then move on to the next muscle group and repeat.

Inhale, tighten the muscle for 5-10 seconds, exhale while saying your calm word and go loose and limp for another 15-20 seconds. Here are the various muscle groups and ways to deal with each one.

The video below walks you through an entire
session in just under 15 minutes.

Hands (make a fist). Arms (tighten forearms and then tighten biceps while “making a muscle” and clenching fist).

Feet (clench and curl your toes down while pressing heels toward the ground). Calves (squeeze and tighten by pulling toes toward you). Thighs (squeeze while also tightening calves and pulling toes toward you).

Buttocks (tighten it by pulling your cheeks together). Stomach (suck your stomach in). Chest (tighten it by taking a deep breath and then flexing).

Neck and Shoulders (raise your shoulders to touch your ears). Mouth and Face (open your mouth wide enough to stretch the hinges of your jaw). Eyes (close your eyelids tight). Forehead (raise your eyebrows as high as you can).

Don't expect to relax after a single session. The original program required more than 50 one-hour sessions. But if you repeat this exercise regularly, you should notice results in as soon as a couple weeks.

Talk to your doctor before performing this procedure if you have problems with broken bones, pulled muscles, strained muscles or other medical issues that limit your physical activity.

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