Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique that was first developed by American physician Edmund Jacobsen in the 1920s. You can use this technique on your own at home to reduce tension and anxiety in your body. If you suffer with tension headaches or a feeling of being unable to relax, this may help. Even if you don’t think you hold a lot of tension in your body, you might be surprised at the level of relaxation that PMR can offer.
In my undergraduate years, I took part in both practicing and instructing others to do PMR. I heard stories of how other students would fall asleep in their chairs as they became relaxed. I never became so relaxed that I fell asleep, but I remember an amazing feeling of relaxation after my weekly session. So much so that I looked forward to it with each passing week.
Progressive muscle relaxation is something that you should not rush through. If you find yourself rushing, it might be best to follow an audio or video track that will force you to go at the right pace rather than simply reading instructions and doing it on your own.
Steps to Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation
First, you will need to find time in your busy schedule for PMR. Once you chosen a time (weekly or daily, depending on your level of busyness), also select a location where you are not likely to be disturbed. If you have a reclining chair that is perfect; if not, perhaps do it while lying on your bed. It’s best to do PMR before a meal rather than after, as digesting food can get in the way of entering a state of deep relaxation.
When you practice PMR, try to wear loose fitting clothing and remove anything restricting such as a watch or jewellery. Take off your shoes.
Now that you are in a relaxed position, it’s time to think in a detached way. Don’t be trying too hard to relax while you do this. That’s not the point. Instead, try to let yourself go with the experience and just let it happen.
The next step is to take three very deep breaths from your abdominals while you slowly exhale and imagine tension is leaving your body.
After you’ve finished with those three deep breaths, you are ready to start tensing and relaxing various muscle groups in your body.
Tense each of the following muscle groups for 10 seconds, and then release the tension and allow that part of the body to relax for 15 to 20 seconds. During the alternating relaxation periods, try to notice the difference between how it feels when your muscles are contracted versus limp. Be sure to focus on one part of the body at a time and keep all other parts relaxed while you tense a particular muscle group.
If you feel any pain or strain, stop and move on to another muscle. Try not to let your mind wander as you practice PMR. Focus on each muscle as you tense it.
Below is the list of body parts you will move through:
- Hands (tightly clench your fists)
- Biceps (bring you forearm up toward your shoulder)
- Triceps (extend your arm and lock it at the elbow)
- Forehead (raise your eyebrows as high as you can)
- Eyes (tightly shut your eyelids)
- Jaw (open your mouth as wide as you can)
- Neck (extend your head backward)
- Shoulders (raise your shoulders up toward your ears)
- Shoulder blades (push your shoulder blades tightly toward each other)
- Chest (take a deep breath and hold it)
- Stomach (suck in your stomach tightly)
- Lower back (arch your lower back)
- Buttocks (squeeze your buttocks together tightly)
- Thighs (contract your thigh muscles)
- Calves (pull your toes up toward you to squeeze your calves)
- Feet (curl your toes downward to contract your feet muscles)
Once you’ve finished alternately tensing and relaxing each muscle group, examine your body for any remaining tension. If you find any, then go back and repeat the exercise for that particular muscle group.
At the point that the exercise is complete, visualize relaxation spreading throughout your entire body. Imagine that it starts at your head and gradually makes its way all the way down to the tips of your toes.
Let me know if you try this exercise and if it helps you to relax. While PMR is not directly working on your social anxiety, being more relaxed in daily life is likely to contribute to an improved outlook when it comes to social and performance situations. If you do find yourself in a situation that causes anxiety, try returning to the feeling you had during PMR.
Time to complete: 20 Minutes
Equipment: A comfortable place to lie down
Jacobson, Edmund. Progressive Relaxation: A Physiological and Clinical Investigation of Muscular States and Their Significance in Psychology and Medical Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.