Do the Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise

A woman lying back in a chair with her eyes closed.

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Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a stress and anxiety management technique. If you have panic disorder, agoraphobia, or another anxiety disorder, this technique may help you calm your body and quiet your mind. With regular practice, progressive muscle relaxation gets easier to perform, and you will be able to achieve a greater depth of relaxation.

The good news is that not only is this exercise effective, it's also quick and easy. All you need is 10 to 15 minutes.

How to Prepare

Stary by making sure that you are comfortable. You may be sitting in a chair or lying down. Sitting in a reclining chair is often ideal, since you may become so relaxed if you lie down that you actually go do sleep. This exercise can be used at nighttime, but it is meant to be a way to calm your body during the daytime.

Your eyes may be open or closed, but most people find closing their eyes helps maintain focus during the exercise. It can also help you stay awake while your body becomes more relaxed.

Loosen any restrictive clothing and take off your shoes. Make sure your surroundings are quiet.

Begin by doing some deep breathing. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Repeat this several times. Taking about five deep breaths before you begin is a good place to start.

Tensing the Muscles

The first step of progressive muscle relaxation is to tense the muscles in specific parts of the body. You'll follow the same process for each muscle group.

  • During this step, you will start by squeezing a muscle as tightly as you can for about five seconds while you take a deep breath.
  • Focus on getting the muscle as tight as you possibly can—it might feel uncomfortable or even cause you to shake slightly.
  • One thing to remember is to focus on only tensing the muscle you are targeting. It can be easy to tense nearby muscles or even to tighten up all the muscles in your body. Concentrate on keeping other muscle groups relaxed while you isolate your targeted muscle.

Remember to exercise caution when you are doing progressive muscle relaxation. While your muscles should become quite tight, be careful not to hurt yourself. As you tense each muscle, build tension gradually and gently. If you feel any serious pain, stop immediately. 

Always talk to your doctor first if you have any problems that might affect your ability to safely do this exercise. Muscle strain, broken bones, or other injuries, for example, may pose a concern.

Relaxing the Muscles

The next step of the process involves relaxing the tense muscles you have targeted. Your focus should be on the sensation of relaxing your muscles and the distinct differences between the tensed and relaxed states.

  • After you have tensed the muscle for around five seconds, exhale as you let the tension flow out of the muscle.
  • As you relax the tight muscles, they should return to a completely limp and loose state. 
  • Remember, the goal of PMR is to help you learn how to relax your body when you start to become tense—so really focusing on the process and sensation of relaxing your body can help you become better at reaching a more relaxed state.

Muscles Groups to Target

The goal of this exercise is to work through the muscle groups of the body, progressively tensing and relaxing each one. You can go in any order, but it often helps to either work your way up starting at your feet or down starting at your head.

Feet

Start by tensing the muscles in your feet. Bend your feet upward from the ankle toward your face. Flex your feet upward as high as you can, but not so much that it causes pain or cramping. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds.

Quickly release the tension in your feet. Notice the feelings and sensations you experience when your feet are relaxed. Stay relaxed for about 20 to 30 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group.

Lower Body

Tense the muscles in your buttocks and thighs. Notice how the tension feels. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds and quickly release the tension. Stay relaxed for 20 to 30 seconds.

Abdomen

Tighten your stomach muscles. Focus on the tension for 5 to 10 seconds. Release the tension and relax for a count of 20 to 30. Notice the differences between how your stomach felt while tensed and relaxed.

Hands and Arms

Make a tight fist with each hand while simultaneously flexing your hands upward at the wrist. Focus on the sensations you feel while these muscles are tensed for a count of 5 to 10 seconds. Quickly release the tension and focus on the relaxed muscles in your hands and arms for 20 to 30 seconds.

Bend your elbows and tense your biceps as hard as you can. Hold the tension for a count of 5 to 10 and quickly release. Stay relaxed for 20 to 30 seconds, focusing on how these relaxed muscles feel.

Upper Back

Move to the upper back. Tighten your upper back muscles by pulling your shoulders back as tight as you can. Hold for a count of 5 to 10. Quickly release the tension and relax for 20 to 30 seconds. Focus on how your upper back feels now compared to when tensed.

Pull your shoulders upward toward your ears. Pull them up as tight as possible and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Feel the tension in your shoulders and neck. Quickly release the tension and stay relaxed for 20 to 30 seconds.

Head

Wrinkle your forehead upward as tight as you can. Hold for a count of 5 to 10 and quickly release the tension. Stay relaxed for 20 to 30 seconds.

Squeeze your eyes closed for a count of 5 to 10. Focus on how the tension feels. Release the tension and focus on how relaxation feels for a count of 20 to 30.

Open your mouth as wide as you can. Feel the tension in your jaw. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and release. Relax your jaw — your lips should be slightly parted. Notice the contrast between tension and relaxation.

Finishing

Once you finish relaxing all of the muscle groups, continue deep breathing for a few minutes. Focus on how your relaxed muscles feel.

Remember to practice this exercise regularly, even when you aren't feeling tense or anxious. Once you become more skilled at doing this, it is something you can do anywhere at any time to relieve stress and anxiety.

By practicing this exercise regularly, you will be able to recognize tightness in various muscle groups and relax them on cue.

Tips

  • You can add muscle groups to the exercise, or you can just focus on your individual areas of tension.
  • After tightening muscle groups, make sure to release the tension quickly, not gradually.
  • Try using an audio recording to guide the exercise, especially when you are first learning this technique. You can find guided PMR podcasts, YouTube videos, and mobile apps.
  • If you are short on time, try a quick version of the exercise focusing only on the main muscle groups: the lower body, abs, upper body, and face.
  • If you have trouble falling asleep, try this activity after you have gone to bed.
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Article Sources
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  1. Norelli SK, Long A, Krepps JM. Relaxation Techniques. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Updated May 12, 2020.

  2. Bermejo Caja CJ, Martín García Á, García Laborda A, Pérez Quintana M, Díaz Rodríguez L, Marqués Andrés S. Effectiveness of relaxation on anxiety and quality of life in adult patients with generalised anxiety disorder: a systematic review protocol. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports. 2013;11(1):270 – 287

Additional Reading
  • Davis M, Eshelman E, McKay M. The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 5th Addition. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.; 2000.