Progressive Muscle Relaxation

One of the most simple and easily learned techniques for relaxation is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), a widely-used procedure today that was originally developed by Edmond Jacobson in 1939.

It is recommended that you practice full PMR twice a day for about a week before moving on to the shortened form. Of course, the time needed to master the full PMR procedure varies from person to person.

The information, facts, and opinions provided here are not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.  Always consult your primary healthcare provider for any medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and before undertaking a new diet or exercise plan.

Here are some suggestions for practice:

  • Always practice full PMR in a quiet place, alone, with no electronic distractions, not even background music.
  • Remove your shoes and wear loose clothing.
  • Avoid eating, smoking, or drinking. It’s best to practice before meals rather than after, for the sake of your digestive processes.
  • Never practice after using any intoxicants.
  • Sit in a comfortable chair if possible. You may practice lying down, but this increases the likelihood of falling asleep.
  • If you fall asleep, give yourself credit for the work you did up to the point of sleep.
  • If you practice in bed at night, plan on falling asleep before you complete your cycle. Therefore, consider a practice session at night, in bed, to be in addition to your basic practice.
  • When you finish a session, relax with your eyes closed for a few seconds, and then get up slowly. (Orthostatic hypotension—a sudden drop in blood pressure due to standing up quickly—can cause you to faint.) Some people like to count backwards from 5 to 1, timed to slow, deep breathing, and then say, “Eyes open. Supremely calm. Fully alert.”

Muscle Groups

You will be working with most all the major muscle groups in your body, but for convenience you will make a systematic progression from your feet upwards. Here is the most popular recommended sequence:

Right foot
Right lower leg and foot
Entire right leg
Left foot
Left lower leg and foot
Entire left leg
Right hand
Right forearm and hand
 Entire right arm
Left hand
Left forearm and hand
Entire left arm
Neck and shoulders
Note: If you are left-handed, you might want to begin with your left foot, and so on.

Tension–Relaxation Procedure

Step One: Tension. The process of applying tension to a muscle is essentially the same regardless of which muscle group you are using. First, focus your mind on the muscle group; for example, your right hand. Then inhale and simply squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for about 8 seconds; in the example, this would involve making a tight fist with your hand.

Note: Beginners usually make the mistake of allowing muscles other than the intended group to tense as well; in the example, this would be tensing muscles in your right arm and shoulder, not just in your right hand. With practice you will learn to make very fine discriminations among muscles; for the moment just do the best you can. It can be very frustrating for a beginner to try to experience a fine degree of muscle separation.

Because neglect of the body is an almost universal cultural attitude, it is usually very difficult to begin learning how to take responsibility for body “mechanics.” So take heart and realize that learning fine muscle distinction is in itself a major part of the overall PMR learning process. PMR isn’t just about tension and relaxation—it is also about muscle discernment.

But also relax a bit and realize that no part of the body is an isolated unit; the muscles of the hand, for example, do have connections in the forearm, so when you tense your hand there will always be some small tension occurring in the forearm. When PMR asks that the hand be tensed without tensing the arm, it is really speaking to the “clumsy” beginner who, out of total body ignorance, will unthinkingly tense everything in the whole arm.

So if you accept the fact that you are simply in the beginner phase—rather than perceive yourself as somehow inept—then you can have the patience to discern the fine muscles with practice.

It’s important to really feel the tension. Done properly, the tension procedure will cause the muscles to start to shake, and you will feel some pain.

Note: Be careful not to hurt yourself, as compared to feeling mild pain. Contracting the muscles in your feet and your back, especially, can cause serious problems if not done carefully; i.e., gently but deliberately.

Step Two: Releasing the Tension. This is the best part because it is actually pleasurable. After the 8 seconds, just quickly and suddenly let go. Let all the tightness and pain flow out of the muscles as you simultaneously exhale. In the example, this would be imagining tightness and pain flowing out of your hand through your fingertips as you exhale. Feel the muscles relax and become loose and limp, tension flowing away like water out of a faucet. Focus on and notice the difference between tension and relaxation.

Note: The point here is to really focus on the change that occurs as the tension is let go. Do this very deliberately, because you are trying to learn to make some very subtle distinctions between muscular tension and muscular relaxation.

Stay relaxed for about 15 seconds, and then repeat the tension-relaxation cycle. You’ll probably notice more sensations the second time. 
The Full PMR Schedule

Once you understand the muscle groups and the tension-relaxation procedure, then you are ready to begin the full PMR training. Simply follow the list of muscle groups in the sequence given and work through your entire body. Practice twice a day for a week. Spend extra time, if necessary, until you can achieve a deep sense of physical relaxation; then you can move on to the Shortened PMR schedule.

Please Note:
A very small proportion of people, when they first attempt to enter a state of deep relaxation, have a paradoxical reaction and feel extremely uneasy and anxious, and may have increased respiration and racing thoughts. If this happens to you, be assured that this is not abnormal! If the more “quiet” forms of relaxation leave you feeling anxious, begin your relaxation training with progressive muscle relaxation. 




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