Stress and anxiety never come alone. They often lead to long-term health problems, including both mental and physical symptoms. They can cause cardiovascular, respiratory, and urinary problems. Studies suggest that anxiety disorders may even lead to heart failure in previously healthy people.
The amygdala – part of the brain that directs our emotional perceptions – is thought to be responsible for the behavior known as “fight or flight” response, when the muscles tense, heart rate increases, and breathing becomes heavy. This is how our brain puts the body on alert in possibly dangerous situations.
What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?
To put it simply, when your life is full of stressful events and anxieties, your muscles suffer and the body responds with tension. The progressive muscle relaxation technique (PMRT) is an easy and helpful technique commonly used to relieve muscle stiffness. These exercises tense up certain muscles and relax them, one body part at a time. The technique was named after its inventor, Dr Edmund Jacobson, who – even a century ago – found a way to help his patients overcome anxiety disorders. He strongly believed that a relaxed body can relax the mind.
Mind and body are connected more than we think. It’s proven that the body “remembers” every trauma that it goes through. Even though many situations that cause our anxieties aren’t actually dangerous, our bodies tend to react by tensing the muscles. It’s the body’s way of preparing for possible danger, and even though it may seem like a minor problem at first, muscle stiffness can lead to issues such as tension headaches and back problems, so it’s important to tackle your anxiety symptoms as soon as possible and with all available means.
Even though it seems easy, you probably won’t master the exercises immediately, but practice is the key. It’s unrealistic to think that you can teach your body to respond to stress differently in the first try.
Health benefits of Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation brings wide variety of health benefits, such as:
- Decreased tension and stiffness of the muscles
- Decrease in blood pressure
- Reduced fatigue
- Decrease in anxiety symptoms
- General feeling of health and well-being
How to perform Progressive Relaxation to overcome anxiety
It’s important to note that if you have one or more injuries, you should skip the injured part of the body. Make sure that you’re in a comfortable spot, sitting or lying down — whichever you prefer.
Which part of the body you’ll dedicate time to first differs among people and guides, but most commonly the sequence goes from top to the bottom of the body, something like this:
- Start by taking a deep breath. Hold your breath for a few seconds and then exhale. Make sure that you breathe slowly and steadily, as you will be tensing the muscles while you breathe in, and relaxing them as you breathe out.
- Begin with your forehead, tensing it and frowning as you are surprised by something.
- Squeeze your eyes as much as you can.
- Open your mouth A LOT, as you’re in the middle of a yawn.
- To tackle your facial muscles, smile widely.
- Relax your neck by pulling your head back slowly, as you’re about to look up to the ceiling. Then touch your chin to your chest without creating tension in your head.
- Shrug your shoulders. After this, push your shoulder blades back, as trying to touch them together.
- Clench your right hand into fist; bend your arm at the elbow as you’re trying to show off your bicep. Repeat on the other side.
- To relax your chest, fill up your lungs with air by breathing in deeply.
- Arch your back as much as it’s comfortable.
- When it comes to your belly, you should suck it in as you’re trying to get into a two sizes smaller jeans.
- Squeeze your buttocks muscles tightly as you breathe in, and release while you exhale.
- Clench your thighs tightly.
- Flex your calves, one at a time.
- To stretch your feet, curl the toes downwards, one foot at a time while inhaling and exhaling slowly.
Some studies suggest that progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce frequency of seizures in patients with epilepsy, but more research is needed. Also, people who suffer from insomnia have reported improvements in the quality of sleep after being persistent with PMR, but actual findings are mixed.
This technique works best if practiced in a quiet place and a comfortable position without distractions. If you often feel cornered by anxious feelings, feel free to try this technique at home. It doesn’t require professional guidance. It only takes 20 minutes of your time so it’s really not that hard to be consistent with it.
There are plenty of resources on the internet on how to perform this technique, so you can find a podcast, PDF, or an audio recording quite easily. Remember that there are various ways in which you can perform progressive muscle relaxation. You can do it in an order that suits you better – either starting from the forehead, or the toes. Professionals who perform this technique with people often combine it with guided imagery or breathing exercises.