Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) for Anxiety

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Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is an exercise that anyone can use to alleviate disturbing and disruptive emotional symptoms such as anxiety or insomnia. Like breathing exercisesvisualization, and yoga, PMR is considered a relaxation technique. It's especially helpful in moments of high stress or nervousness, and even can help someone get through a panic attack.

History of PMR

PMR was developed by an American physician, Edmund Jacobson, in the 1920s. Jacobson noted that regardless of their illness, the majority of his patients suffered from muscle pain and tension. When he suggested that they relax, he noticed that most people didn't seem connected enough to their physical tension to release it.

This inspired Jacobson to develop a sequence of steps for tightening and then relaxing groups of muscles. He found this allowed his patients to become more aware of their tension, to learn how to let go of it, and to recognize what it feels like to be in a relaxed state.

Since then the technique has been modified many times but all modern variations of PMR are based on Jacobson’s original idea of systematically squeezing and then releasing isolated muscle groups. 

How PMR Works

PMR works in part by helping to overcome a normal reaction to stress known as the flight-or-fight response. In evolutionary terms, this reaction developed as a way to help animals survive a threat—either by running away or by meeting the opposition head-on. Over time the flight-or-fight response has become a common reaction to feelings of fear that often are out of proportion with reality.

Unfortunately, when it's not needed for actual survival, the flight-or-fight reaction tends to bring on many uncomfortable physical symptoms, including accelerated heart rate, sweating, shaking, and shortness of breath—largely the product of an influx of stress hormones.

Also, muscle pain, tension, and stiffness are common symptoms brought on by stress and anxiety. Relaxation techniques, including PMR, have the reverse effect on the body, eliciting the relaxation response, lowering heart rate, calming the mind, and reducing bodily tension. PMR also can help a person become more aware of how their physical stress may be contributing to their emotional state. By relaxing the body, a person may be able to let go of anxious thoughts and feelings.

PMR Step-by-Step

For a quick taste of how PMR works, squeeze one of your fists as hard as you can. Notice how tight your fingers and forearm feel. Count to ten and then release the clinch. Allow your hand to relax completely and let go of any tension. Let your hand go limp and notice how relaxed it feels now compared to before your clinched your fist. 

This methodical approach to increasing and releasing tension throughout your body is the linchpin of PMR: By systematically constricting and releasing various muscle groups it is possible to relieve physical stress and quiet and calm the mind.

Here are the steps for one version of PMR that anyone can do. Try it next time you're feeling nervous, anxious, or find yourself tossing, turning, and unable to sleep.

Step 1

Get comfortable. You don't have to lie down to do PMR; it will work if you're sitting up in a chair. Do make sure you're in a place that's free of distraction. Close your eyes if that feels best for you.

Step 2

Breathe. Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling your abdomen rise as you fill your body with air. Then slowly exhale from your mouth, drawing your navel toward your spine. Repeat three to five times.

Step 3

Starting with your feet, tighten and release your muscles. Clench your toes and pressing your heels toward the ground. Squeeze tightly for a few breaths and then release. Now flex your feet in, pointing your toes up towards your head. Hold for a few seconds and then release.

Step 4

Continue to work your way up to your body, tightening and releasing each muscle group. Work your way up in this order: legs, glutes, abdomen, back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and face. Try to tighten each muscle group for a few breaths and then slowly release. Repeat any areas that feel especially stiff.

Step 5 

End the practice by taking a few more deep breaths, noting how much more calm and relaxed you feel.

PMR is a skill, one that takes practice to master. In order to be able to draw on PMR when you need it—in other words when you're truly in a stressful or anxiety-provoking situation—you'll want to learn how to do it while you aren't under pressure. Practice PMR several times a week to become aware of what it's like to feel relaxed. Understanding this feeling can help you to more readily let go of tension when anxiety rises. 

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Article Sources

  • Davis, M, Eshelman, E., & McKay, M (2008). The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 6th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
  • Seaward, B. L. (2013). Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Wellbeing, 8th Edition. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.