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What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

Marjorie McAtee
By Marjorie McAtee
Updated May 17, 2024
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Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation technique that can help induce the relaxation response. The relaxation response generally occurs when all the muscles of the body are deeply and fully relaxed, and relaxing the muscles in this manner can benefit physical and mental stress. The theory behind progressive muscle relaxation states that holding muscles in a contracted state for several seconds allows them to relax more completely when they are eventually released. Progressive muscle relaxation typically asks practitioners to tense and release individual muscles or whole muscle groups in a progressive manner, in order to eventually relax all the muscles of the body. Regularly inducing the relaxation response is believed to lead to a general decrease in stress and anxiety, and it can also help to prevent stress-related illness.

Dr. Edmund Jacobson is credited with developing the progressive muscle relaxation technique. While he originally prescribed a series of about 200 exercises to help relax all the muscles of the body, these were eventually whittled down to about 15 exercises that are considered both easy and effective. Dr. Jacobson believed that his techniques could effectively induce the state of deep relaxation known as the relaxation response, and he often advocated progressive muscle relaxation as part of his treatment plans. Back aches, high blood pressure, and ulcerative colitis are among the conditions progressive muscle relaxation can treat.

The process of progressive muscle relaxation can take anywhere from five to 30 minutes, depending on how thoroughly the practitioner chooses to perform the exercise. It's considered best to relax all of the individual muscles in the body, which generally takes longer than exercising entire muscle groups. Either way, practitioners are typically encouraged to seek a quiet environment, where they will not be disturbed, and to assume a comfortable physical position. Practitioners may choose to recline or sit upright, according to personal preference, though the position chosen should ideally be one that allows for complete relaxation.

Practitioners wishing to relax each individual muscle of the body are encouraged to think about tensing and relaxing the separate parts of the face, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, torso, legs and feet. The progression usually begins with the face. Practitioners are typically encouraged to tense and relax the muscles of the forehead, then the muscles around the eyes, then the muscles of the jaw, then the muscles of the neck, and so on. Muscles on the back part of the body are generally tensed and relaxed separately from muscles on the front part of the body. Each muscle is generally held contracted for seven to 10 seconds before being relaxed for a period of 15 to 20 seconds. The next muscle is generally not tensed until the previous muscle has been allowed to relax deeply.

The same technique can be used to achieve results more quickly, by progressively relaxing entire groups of muscles. Experts often warn that this technique may not produce the same results as the more thorough technique; it can, however, be an alternative for those with time constraints. Practitioners can tense and relax the muscles of the face, jaw, head, neck, and shoulders all at once. They can then release these muscles and move on to progressively tensing and relaxing the arms, torso, and legs.

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