We all want to relax. But relaxing is often the last thing on your to-do list — the prize after a long day at work or after the dishes are done or after the laundry is folded or after the kids are in bed… Or maybe you think of relaxation as something you only do on vacation.
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But a daily relaxation practice might deserve a higher spot on your to-do list, according to sports medicine physician Matthew Kampert, DO. In particular, he recommends progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).
“Progressive relaxation is like a body scan that has a mental component and a physiological component,” Dr. Kampert says. “It involves using breathing and visualization to help you acknowledge and release the tension you hold in every area of your body.”
PMR isn’t quite the lay-on-your-couch-and-binge-Netflix kind of relaxing. But you can practice it anywhere, anytime, and see immediate and long-term mental and physical benefits.
Dr. Kampert explains more about how you can reap the benefits of a progressive muscle relaxation practice.
What is progressive muscle relaxation?
PMR involves alternately tensing (squeezing) and relaxing (releasing) your muscles. It’s “progressive” because you start at one end of your body — say your toes — and work your way up. Or you can start at your head and work down if you prefer.
You target one small, specific area at a time — like the top of your head, your stomach muscles or your toes.
Dr. Edmund Jacobson first introduced this technique in the 1920s, so it’s sometimes called Jacobson’s relaxation technique. The theory behind it is that physical relaxation encourages mental relaxation.
But physically relaxing your muscles this way does more than make you feel good. It helps your body shift from its sympathetic nervous system (or “fight-or-flight” mode) to the parasympathetic nervous system (also called “rest and digest”) mode.
Even small stressors — like losing your keys when you’re running late — can trigger your sympathetic nervous system and get your gears running at high speed. In simple terms, PMR allows your body to take its foot off the gas pedal and shift into neutral.
“The sympathetic nervous system increases your heart rate and causes muscles to contract,” Dr. Kampert explains. “With progressive muscle relaxation, you’re trying to calm down that sympathetic output and let your parasympathetic system take over. When that switch happens, you can see a change in your heart rate and blood pressure.”
How to do progressive muscle relaxation
The beauty of PMR is that it’s self-guided, and you can do it just about anywhere. While it’s most effective when done lying down, you can still get the benefits of doing PMR while at your desk, sitting in traffic or backstage before a big performance.
To begin, close your eyes. This helps shut out unnecessary stimuli and creates a better connection between your mind and muscles. Take a few deep “belly” breaths to slow down your sympathetic nervous system. Then follow these steps for each muscle group, beginning with your toes:
- Inhale and contract (squeeze) each muscle group hard. Hold for five seconds.
- Focus on how the tension feels and visualize your tight muscle.
- Exhale and relax that muscle for five to 10 seconds.
- Visualize your relaxed muscle and notice how it feels.
- Repeat with the next muscle group.
Work your way up your body, covering these areas:
- Lower body, including toes, feet, calves, thighs and buttocks.
- Upper body, including abdomen, fingers, hands, arms and shoulders.
- Head, including neck, jaw and forehead.
For total body relaxation, Dr. Kampert says the process usually takes 10 to 20 minutes — possibly longer if you’re new to PMR. Areas of extreme tension may benefit from a second round.
Have just one tense area and need a quick fix? You can use the same steps and just target one troubled muscle group. Focused relaxation will help relieve that area. It won’t provide the same full-body benefits as progressive relaxation, but it’ll help if you’re short on time.
Benefits of progressive muscle relaxation
PMR can provide immediate results and yield long-term health benefits. Dr. Kampert shares these four major health benefits:
1. Helps control anxiety response
Anxiety symptoms like muscle tension and shortness of breath can be quite uncomfortable. But research shows that PMR can help control your body’s response to anxiety, especially when combined with cognitive behavioral therapy. And one study found PMR to be just as effective at reducing anxiety as acupuncture.
“The key is recognizing triggers and realizing when anxiety is starting,” Dr. Kampert notes. “With practice, you’ll be able to manage anxiety in the early stages.”
2. Relaxes you for better sleep
If you’ve ever exercised right before bedtime, you probably found it harder to fall asleep. Sometimes, your sympathetic nervous system gets activated late in the day from exercise, stress or too much stimulation (like screen time). PMR before bed could be a helpful tool for almost any busy person.
“When you go to bed, you want your heart rate and blood pressure down,” Dr. Kampert explains. “By calming everything down, you set the stage for sleep.” Once you’ve completed PMR, continue to focus on your breathing until you drift off to sleep.
3. Relieves stress and tension headaches
Everyday stress can cause physical and mental tension — a recipe for headaches. But PMR reverses many of the stress responses that trigger headaches. According to the American Migraine Foundation, PMR is an accepted technique for controlling and preventing headaches. When used with biofeedback, the two tools together can reduce the frequency and severity of headaches by as much as 60%.
Using PMR regularly may also have long-term heart health benefits for people living with chronic stress. When your body releases stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), your heartbeat increases and your blood vessels constrict (tighten). This can raise your blood pressure. Even if you already have high blood pressure, research shows that PMR can improve your systolic blood pressure (the top blood pressure number).
4. Enhances athletic performance
Athletes often use PMR to manage stress or anxiety before a big event and perform their best.
Athletes commonly think that getting amped up before an event helps with performance or physical ability. But that’s actually inefficient, Dr. Kampert says. When adrenaline is pumping before the event, it increases your breathing, activates all your muscles and you burn through a lot of energy.
“But when you can breathe calmly and relax, you more efficiently distribute blood and activate the appropriate muscles,” he continues. Keep your mind and body relaxed before you perform to reserve energy for the muscles you’ll use during the competition.
Perfecting your progressive muscle relaxation technique
Progressive muscle relaxation takes practice — especially to be able to use it to control stress or anxiety. Practicing it often will make you more aware of the tension you carry and how it feels to actively release it.
“Start by doing PMR somewhere you feel relaxed,” Dr. Kampert says. “Then try it in a situation or environment where you tend to feel anxious, and practice using it to calm yourself down.”
Using technology, like a smartwatch or heart rate monitor, can show you how PMR is affecting your body as you do it. When you can see how deep breathing and visualization directly impact your heart rate and blood pressure, you’ll be more likely to use those tools in stressful situations.
Is progressive muscle relaxation safe?
Overall, PMR is without any risks. But Dr. Kampert does recommend that you remember to get up slowly after practicing PMR to avoid any drop in blood pressure from standing too quickly. This is especially important for people taking blood pressure medication.
“In some instances, PMR can be as effective as medication when it comes to lowering blood pressure,” he adds. “If someone is on one or multiple blood pressure medications, those drugs may block the body’s ability to raise blood pressure. The combination can be concerning if PMR lowers your blood pressure even further.”
If you have high blood pressure or other health conditions, it’s a good idea to talk to your provider before beginning a new practice like PMR.