What is progressive relaxation?
Progressive relaxation, also called progressive muscle relaxation, is one of the simplest relaxation techniques there is. It's also one of the most effective. You're probably familiar with some version of this exercise—it involves tightening and then relaxing various muscle groups of your body until your entire body is loose and relaxed, and your mind is calm. back to top
What is it used for?
Many people use progressive relaxation at night to help them fall asleep more easily or to lull them back to dreamland after waking up. Others use it to help ease chronic (long-term) pain. Progressive relaxation exercises can also be done during the day from a sitting or lying position to help relieve stress. back to top
How do I do it?
There are many variations on the basic theme, but here's one standard technique that you can do while lying down. When practicing it, it's a good idea to find a quiet place where you won't be distracted. Wear loose, comfortable clothes.
Of course, you may have to read through the following steps a few times and go back and forth to your instructions before you can remember how to do this exercise on your own. One good way to learn the technique is to have a friend read the instructions to you while you practice the steps. Then you can switch places.
- Close your eyes and take a deep, slow breath in that goes all the way down to your abdomen. As you breathe out, imagine that you're letting out as much inner tension as you possibly can. Imagine at the same time that all your muscles feel heavy and your body is pleasantly sinking into the bed or whatever surface you're lying on. Repeat this a few times before beginning the exercise.
- Focus your mind on your feet and calves. Pull your toes up toward the ceiling and tense your feet and calves as much as possible (but not so that it hurts). Hold that position for a few seconds. Now release and relax all those muscles. Notice how nice it feels to let go of the tension.
- Focus your mind on your thighs and bottom. Clench all the muscles in those areas (it helps if you press your heels down at the same time). Hold for a few seconds. Then relax. Notice that those muscles are now so relaxed that your thighs and bottom want to sink into the surface you're lying on.
- Focus your mind on your abdomen and chest. Tense all the muscles in those areas. Chances are, you'll be holding your breath automatically as you do this. Hold it there for a bit, then relax. You'll naturally want to take a deep breath to relieve the sense of tension in your chest. So do that—take a slow, deep breath in that you can feel all the way to your abdomen. As you exhale, imagine that you're releasing even more tension from your entire body.
- Focus your mind on your hands and arms. Stretch your fingers out straight and tense all the muscles from your shoulders to your fingertips. Hold for a few seconds. Now relax. Imagine that tension is flowing out through the end of your fingertips as the circulation flows back into your arms.
- Focus your mind on your shoulders and neck. This is where many people store a lot of stress and tension. Press your shoulder blades together and tighten all the muscles in your shoulders and neck. Hold briefly. Now let go and relax completely. Imagine that your shoulders and neck are totally loose and flowing with warmth and energy.
- Focus your mind on your face and head. Tense your forehead, squint your eyes, wrinkle your nose, clench your teeth, and pull back the corners of your mouth. Nice picture, huh? Hold for a second or two. Now relax all those muscles. Let your jaw become totally slack and your mouth open naturally.
- Now that you're totally relaxed, enjoy it! Take another deep breath, feeling it all the way to your abdomen. Imagine your whole body sinking into the surface you're lying on. Notice that your body feels pleasantly heavy and warm, and your mind feels peaceful. If you're doing this exercise during the day to relieve stress, take three more slow breaths, open your eyes, and return to the day's activities with a fresh new focus. On the other hand, if you're doing this exercise to fall asleep . . . sweet dreams. back to top