One of the most common side effects of a stressful life is muscle tension. And it can be a true nightmare, causing pain that niggles away at you all day at work and leaves you tossing and turning through the night.
In fact muscle tension is such a typical side effect of coping with an urban lifestyle and job stressthat you might overlook its message that your stress levels are way out of control. But you shouldn’t. Stress is a serious issue that can lead to burnout if you are not careful.
The good news is you can deal with your muscle tension in a way that releases your stress at the same time. The technique that accomplishes this is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation, proven to not just relax your body and lower your anxiety but also deal with a host of other issues from ulcers and insomnia to hypertension.
What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?
First of all it’s not some new fad, or something that won’t work. It’s actually a proven technique for learning to monitor and regulate muscular tension that was developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson way back in the early 1920s. So it’s certainly tried and tested! The technique involves tensing particular muscles and then relaxing them.
Sounds simple, and essentially it is (in fact you can teach yourself now with the guide below) but it’s so effective it is still a popular technique with modern day physical therapists.
Why Do You Have Muscle Tension in the First Place?
When we are stressed, anxious or fearful our bodies tense up. In the past, when we were primal, this was a fantastic process that helped our bodies prepare for a life-threatening situation such as being eaten by a wild animal or killed by an opposing tribe.
In modern life, these events are rarely a problem! Our stress is more to do with things like our colleagues not liking us, our partner wanting a different lifestyle than us, a family member being sick, or money feeling scarce. None of it great, but none of it a direct threat to our very life.
And yet our bodies still react to stress in the same way as in caveman times. Many people who suffer from anxiety will find they have muscle tension on an almost daily basis because their bodies are constantly in this ‘fearful caveman’ mode. We tense our shoulders, our jaws feel tight, and we clench our teeth. Eventually we get shoulder and back aches, a sore jaw and tension headaches.
So Progressive Muscle Relaxation might not have been so helpful to our caveman ancestors, but it’s certainly a godsend in these modern times. And again, the beauty of Progressive Muscle Relaxation is that it’s not difficult to learn – in fact you can follow the steps below and release stress in your body right now.
Preparing for Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When you are beginning to practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercises keep in mind the following points.
• Physical Injuries: If you have any injuries, or a history of physical problems that may cause muscle pain, always consult your doctor before your start.
• Select your surroundings: Minimise the distraction to your five senses. i.e. turn off the TV/radio/computer, find a place you have solitude, and use soft lighting.
• Make Yourself Comfortable: Use a chair that easily seats your body, including your head (you can lie down, but some bits of the sequence are easier to do sitting and then you don’t risk falling asleep half way through). Wear loose clothing, and take off your shoes.
• Internal Mechanics: Avoid practicing after eating, or after consuming alcohol.
•Time: There is no point in rushing your relaxation! Try to carve out at least 15 minutes for your Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercise.
Getting Started with Progressive Muscle Relaxation
1. Once you’ve set aside the time and place for relaxation, slow down your breathing and give yourself permission to relax.
2. When you are ready to begin, tense each muscle group described below, working your way through the list.
The process is the same each time- you put your focus on the muscle group, tense, and make sure you can really feel the tension, even to the point of discomfort or shaking, but not so much that you feel a great deal of pain. Keep the muscle tensed for approximately 5 seconds each time. It is advised to take a slow, deep breath as you squeeze the muscles.
(You might inadvertently tense surrounding muscles to the group you are working with, for example, the calf with the foot, but try to only tense the muscle you are targeting. You’ll get better at this with practise.)
3. After your 5 seconds of tensing, relax the muscle, exhaling, and focus on keeping it relaxed for approximately 10 seconds each time. It may be helpful to say something like ‘Relax’ as you relax the muscle – the brain can cooperate more sometimes if we give it commands. The muscle should feel loose and limp.
4. When you have finished the relaxation sequence, remain seated for a few moments, enjoying the feeling of calm, before allowing yourself to gently become alert.
And Relax… The Muscle Relaxation Sequence
1. Right hand and forearm: Make a fist with your right hand.
2. Right upper arm: Bring your right forearm up to your shoulder to ‘make a muscle’.
3. Left hand and forearm.
4. Left upper arm.
5. Forehead: Raise your eyebrows as high as they will go, as though you were surprised by something. Then relax.
6. Eyes and cheeks: Squeeze your eyes tight shut.
7. Mouth and Jaw: Open your mouth as wide as you can, as you might when you’re yawning.
8. Neck: Be careful as you tense these muscles. Face forward and then pull your head back slowly, as though you are looking up to the ceiling.
9. Shoulders: Raise your shoulders up to touch your ears, trying to keep your head still.
10. Shoulder Blades/Back: Push your shoulder blades back, trying to almost touch them together, so that your chest is pushed forward.
11. Chest and Stomach: Breathe in deeply, filling up your lungs and chest with air.
12. Hips and Buttocks: Squeeze your buttock muscles.
13. Right upper leg: Tighten your right thigh.
14. Right lower leg: Do this slowly and carefully to avoid cramps. Pull your toes towards you to stretch the calf muscle.
15. Right Foot: Curl your toes downwards.
16. Left upper leg: Repeat as for right upper leg.
17. Left lower leg: Repeat as for right lower leg.
18. Left foot: Repeat as for right foot.
No Time to Relax? The 5- minute Version
If you are really stressed but unfortunately really short on time, you can work with just the large muscle groups in a ‘mini Progressive Muscle Relaxation session’. These main groups are:
Lower Limbs (legs and feet)
Stomach and Chest
Arms, Shoulders, and Neck
*It is best, though, that you only start using the short version after you’ve practised the full version for some time.
Practice Means Progress When it Comes to Muscle Tension
Training your body to respond differently to stress is like any training – practising consistently is the key. Only through a practice can you become more aware of your muscles, how they respond with tension, and how you can relax them. In fact it helps to go through your muscles and relax even when you are not feeling particularly anxious. It will make it even more effective when you do need the release.
Have you given Progressive Muscle Relaxation a try? How was it for you? Would you like to share your experience, or another tip for releasing tension you practise? Do comment below, we love hearing from you.
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