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An Overview of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

A form of deep muscle relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation is a wonderful way to reduce the physical effects that stress has on your body. It will also give you a feeling of emotional well-being as your mind also relaxes. Progressive muscle relaxation is based on the technique of simply tensing and relaxing 16 various muscle groups throughout your body.

In addition to relieving body tension caused by anxiety and stress, progressive muscle relaxation also helps to alleviate symptoms associated with certain types of chronic pain and bring relief to people who suffer from insomnia. Many doctors have used a combination of progressive muscle relaxation and standard medical therapies to give relief from symptoms from various conditions including:

  • A headache
  • Digestive problems
  • Cancer pain
  • High blood pressure

The Technique

Learning the technique of progressive muscle relaxation, also known as PMR, requires practice and patience. You need to learn the feelings associated with the tensing and relaxing of each specific muscle group and how to control a specific body area. For example, some people new to PMR find it difficult to tense just the muscles of the foot without also tensing the calf muscle. Others master the technique quickly. Always keep in mind the more you practice the better you will become and before long you will be a master of progressive muscle relaxation

Preparing Yourself

It is best to perform PMR in a dimly lit quiet room, alone and without any distractions, not even music playing in the background. Wear comfortable, loose clothing and remove your shoes. Sit in a comfortable reclining chair, or lay down on a bed or couch. Many people find they are comfortable laying on the floor during their relaxation exercises.

The Process of Tensing and Relaxing

Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing, or tightening, the muscles of a specific body area. The actual way you tense the muscle is not as important as targeting just that area. For example, some people may tense the muscles in their hand by clenching it into a fist, while others may tighten it by opening their hand and extending and stretching their fingers.

The process of tensing and relaxing each muscle group is basically the same for each area.

  • Relax and use your mind to focus only on the specific muscle area that you are going to tense.
  • Breath in slowly and deeply as you squeeze the muscles of the specific area as hard as you can. The tension should be deliberate but gentle.
  • Keep your muscles tense for approximately 8-10 seconds. You need to really feel the tension in your muscles and they may begin to shake.
  • Relax your muscles quickly as you exhale slowly, allowing all the tension you created from contracting your muscles to release. Imagine all of the pain and tightness flowing out of your body through the area you just relaxed. For example, if you contracted the muscles in your hand, imagine it being released through the tips of your fingers.
  • Focus on the feeling of relaxation compared to tension.

Remain relaxed for approximately 15 seconds and repeat the process on the next muscle group.

The Muscle Groups

When performing PMR many people start with the feet and move progressively up the body. The order of progression that is used is often a matter of personal preference. The following are the 16 muscle groups that are involved in PMR:

  • Right foot
  • Right foot and lower leg
  • Right thigh, lower leg and foot
  • Left foot
  • Left foot and lower leg
  • Left thigh, lower leg and foot
  • Right hand
  • Right hand and forearm
  • The entire right arm
  • Left hand
  • Left hand and forearm
  • The entire left arm
  • Stomach, abdomen and lower back
  • Back and upper chest.
  • Shoulders and neck
  • Face

Once you have mastered the technique of PMR, you should practice it every day. However, a shortened version of PMR involves working four areas of muscle groups that cover the entire body.

  • Lower limbs
  • Chest and abdomen
  • Shoulders, neck, and arms
  • Face

Online Resources

There are many resources to help you learn progressive muscle relaxation.

A Few Words of Caution

  • If you have any medical problems or conditions, it is always best to check with your physician before starting a program of PMR.
  • Once you have finished a session of PMR, never stand up quickly. Take a few seconds and relax keeping your eyes closed. Standing up too quickly can result in a drop in blood pressure and fainting is possible. Try counting slowly down from ten, timed to deep breaths.
  • Be very careful that you do not hurt yourself, especially when tensing the muscles in the back, neck, and feet. It is normal to experience a feeling of mild pain but it should not be more than that.


Progressive muscle relaxation is an excellent way to control the physical and mental effects that stress has on your body.

*Photo by Pim Chu on Unsplash

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