Progressive Muscle Relaxation

In this next section you’ll be learning the practice of Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

Many of us live in a chronic state of muscular tension. It gets worse when we face times of increased stress. You’ve already learned that whenever you experience anxiety it’s expressed in your body. You may not even realize that your muscles are tense all the time. Think about what you do when you’re stressed. Do you tense your shoulders, frown, clench your jaw, or hold your breath?

For this exercise, you’re going to purposely tense your muscles and then relax them. This will allow you to learn to recognize when your muscles are tense and when they are relaxed. Becoming mindfully aware of the difference between tension and relaxation creates an internal physical alarm, which will let you know when you’re starting to feel stressed so that you can do something about it.

For this exercise, please find a quiet place, free of distractions. You may choose to lie down with a pillow under your knees, or sit in a chair. You’re going to prepare yourself just as you did in the Body Scan. This exercise can be demanding on your body, so if at any time you need to take a break during it, of course, feel free to do so.

As you work through this exercise, you’ll squeeze different muscles as hard as you can, making sure not to squeeze them too hard, or so long, that it causes you any harm. You’ll tighten the different muscles enough to create discomfort so that you can begin to learn about how your body experiences and expresses stress and pain. Then you will rapidly release the tension all at once. Read through these instructions and when you’re done, give Progressive Muscle Relaxation a try.

Read through the following instructions. Then try a Progressive Muscle Relaxation practice.

  • Initially do a quick Body Scan. Take two deep breaths. Make sure your breathing is slow, smooth, even, quiet and long. Breathe in from your toes to the top of your head and exhale from your head down through to your toes. This is one complete breath. First, you’ll feel the resting sensations in your body as you complete these first two breath-cycles. You’ll initially focus on becoming aware of what’s going on in your body.
  • Start with your forehead. Lift your eyebrows as high as they can go. Lift them to the top of your head! Focus on the feeling in the muscle with this intense contraction. If there’s a lot of pain, then just ease off a bit. Breathe in slowly, deeply and quietly. Hold the squeeze for as long as it takes to slowly breathe in. Don’t hold your breath. When you’re ready to breathe out, quickly release the tensed muscle. Just let it go. Allow the muscle to completely relax as you exhale slowly and deeply. Notice how different that muscle feels when it’s tense compared to when it’s relaxed. Continue to breathe for two more breath-cycles. One complete inhalation and exhalation is a breath-cycle. In and out, breathe into the relaxed muscle, just as you learned in the Body Scan. Feel how relaxed that area is afterward. Can you feel the difference?
  • Move to your eyes. Squeeze your eyes tightly shut. Hold the squeeze for a breath-cycle and then relax. Breathe deeply for two more breath-cycles and feel the relaxed sensation in your eyes.
  • Move on to your mouth. Open your mouth as wide as you can. Hold your jaw as wide open as you can. Squeeze as long as you breathe in and then let go quickly as you breathe out. Don’t force your breath out, just let it release naturally and smoothly. Focus on the relaxation in your jaw for two more breaths. As with the Body Scan, you’re progressively working down the body.
  • Next lift your shoulders to your ears. Tense them and then relax. Imagine your breath going into your shoulders and releasing any remaining tension. Notice how your shoulders feel when they’re tight compared to when you let go of that tension. Focus on the relaxation in your shoulders for two more breaths.
  • Bring both of your arms up to your shoulders and clench your fists. Tighten both your arms as much as you can. Feel that tension. Only tense your arms and fists. Don’t clench your jaw or raise your shoulders. Breathe in and tighten and then drop your arms. Breathe deeply into both your arms for two breath-cycles. When doing these exercises try not to tense any other parts of your body except for the specific muscle group you’re working with. Just imagine your breath going into your arm muscles and back out. Relax them even more as you breathe out. Breathe in and focus on your arms and breathe out and relax.
  • Next make a tight fist with both of your hands at the same time. Tighten them. Tighter. Tighter… and breathe out and release the fists. Focus on how your hands feel afterward. Breathe in and out for two more breaths.
  • Take a deep breath and expand your chest as wide as it will go. Notice the feeling of tightness in your chest. Then quickly release the tension in the chest as you breathe out. Breathe deeply, gently and smoothly letting your stomach expand as you breathe in. Focus on the sensation in your chest as you breathe for two more breaths.
  • • Bring your attention to your abdomen and squeeze your belly button so that it tries to touch your spine. Keep squeezing for as long as you can as you take a slow, deep inhalation. At the end of the inhalation let all the tension go quickly and then continue to breathe into your abdomen for two more slow deep breaths.
  • Tighten the muscles in your buttocks. Hold that tension as you breathe in and let go of the tension all at once as you breathe out. Just rest and breathe feeling the sensation of relaxation in those muscles. Breathe for two more complete breaths as you bring your attention to your buttocks.
  • Flex both of your feet by stretching your feet upward toward your shins. You’re just tensing up your feet and your leg muscles here. Feel the tension in your thighs and lower legs. Hold the tension. Tense up both your legs. Notice how that tension feels and then let it all go. Breathe for two more complete breaths as you feel the physical sensation of release in your feet and thighs.
  • Finally, curl your toes. Really tighten them up as you breathe in. Curl those toes tightly and release them as you breathe out. Bring your attention to the feeling in your toes for two more complete breaths.
  • Finish with a quick Body Scan. Breathe in and out for two breaths as you scan for any areas remaining in the body that are still tense. Breathe into those areas, relaxing them with your exhalation.
  • At the end of the exercise, when you’re ready, open your eyes. Start to move your body, slowly at first. Again, if you’re doing this exercise on the floor, roll onto your right side first; push yourself up to a sitting position with your arms. Stand up very slowly.