Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Anxiety

A woman with brown hair and a white shirt looking relaxed and calm with her eyes closed with the title: Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Anxiety.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Anxiety

When you are stressed and anxious, it is helpful to have tools to stay calm and manage your nerves so you can focus and perform well in what you are facing. It’s normal to have trouble relaxing sometimes.  Even now your body might feel tense, and maybe even restless. You need multiple tools to help you relax. We have written articles already on tools such as using music and grounding techniques that help improve your confidence and decrease your anxiety. Let’s add another one.

 Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a technique that you can try that helps your muscles to fully relax, giving you the rest you need to be the healthiest version of yourself. According to research, PMR can be effective for overall health and well-being. A study looking at Progressive Muscle Relaxation showed that using this relaxation technique provides participants with quick and immediate relief. (Toussaint et al, 2021). 

What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

The simple version is that Progressive Muscle Relaxation is when you flex and relax each muscle group in a progression from head to toe or toe to head. By doing this for a certain amount of time and focusing on the sensations you are having, your mind will likely refocus and activate other areas of your brain. Thus, you are able to feel more calm and able to focus better in the moment. 

This exercise works on the Sympathetic Nervous System in our body, better known as the Fight, Flight, or Freeze System. When we experience something stressful, our body activates this system to protect us or get us out of danger. Each person has a different reaction for different moments. Individually your Nervous System will react, but depending on how aware you are of its existence and how to manage it, will determine how well you are able to stay calm in certain situations. 

Benefits of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is beneficial and can be helpful in certain situations. Take for example if you are playing a sport. When you are in the moment of play, you might be faced with a pressure-filled situation. Immediately our fight or flight response is activated. We then either will freeze, become more activated and aggressive to go harder and faster, or getaway. In this situation, it would be hard to stop and perform PMR. 

But let’s say you are anxious at the beginning of the game or while waiting to get in the game. You feel unfocused and are struggling with remembering your plays or how to perform a certain skill. If you could do Progressive Muscle Relaxation and get yourself focused and calm, do you think you would perform at a higher standard? Absolutely!

Other times when Progressive Muscle Relaxation is helpful is in the moment of intense conversations with a loved one. If you are having trouble focusing, ask for a moment to settle yourself. Then walk through the steps to calm your anxiety and stress. Other benefits of Progressive Muscle Relaxation can be assisting in falling asleep, lowering blood pressure, reducing pain, and “quality of life.” (Chaudhuri et al, 2014)

Who should not do Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

Although we are not medical professionals, we do recommend you talk to your doctor if you have any chronic pain, muscle spasms, or serious injuries. As highly trained mental health professionals, we have training in how medical issues affect mental health concerns. Our understanding of pain when it comes to your physical health is that you should never ignore it.

Make sure that any pain you are having is understood and if needed, checked out by your doctor to make sure you do not cause more damage if the pain is not just from regular exercise and recovery. Use proper procedures to recover from workouts and physical exertion. If you have sharp pain or injury, see your medical professional to get it checked out and wait to use Progressive Muscle Relaxation on that part of your body. 

How to do progressive muscle relaxation

To begin, find a chair to sit in where your back can be straight, feet flat on the floor. Once you obtain this space, notice how your body feels in the chair. The technique will begin from the “bottom” of your body (so, your toes and feet) and work your way all the way up to your facial muscles. 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Script

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do progressive muscle relaxation. First, tense your toes and your foot muscles. Squeeze really tightly and hold for around 10 seconds. Now, release. Do you notice the relaxed feeling in your feet?

Second, you’ll move to tensing your leg and thigh muscles. Repeat the same process as you did with tensing your feet. 

Finally, work up your body, continuing to tense your muscles for 10 seconds, and then releasing, finishing by tensing your facial muscles. Observe how your body feels after this exercise. Which part of your body feels more relaxed than others? There are also guides to progressive muscle relaxation that are helpful too.

How often should you use Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

Progressive Muscle Relaxation can be used as often as needed. Yes, you could spend a great amount of time doing it, so it could get in the way of actually getting things done. However, if you have anxiety that is getting in the way of you performing normal or needed activities during your day, give it a try. Practice it often so you get better and make it more effective and enjoyable for you. 

The first time you try it, you may struggle with implementing it. However, the more you practice and the longer you practice, the more effective it will be at reducing your anxiety. Practice once or twice a day at first, then build. You can use calming music or sounds from your phone or a white noise machine to help you focus and relax.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation in Therapy

If you are struggling with using progressive muscle relaxation to get the results you want, it would be beneficial to see a therapist. At our office in Augusta, GA, our counselors help you with the process. We will walk through each step with you slowly. You will learn how to fully engage in the experience to get the most out of it to help you decrease your anxiety or other stress and tension. 

Practicing progressive muscle relaxation is very important. It takes time to train your focus and attention to get to a relaxed state. In our office, we help you practice staying focused on tensing and relaxing each muscle. It’s kind of a lab-like experience where you get the quiet, tranquility that you need to practice so that when you get out in the real world you have a little more traction as to how to get there emotionally. 

We want you to succeed at managing your anxiety and would love to help you get better at progressive muscle relaxation or any other techniques that help with decreasing anxiety or stress. 

My Personal Experience with Progressive Muscle Relaxation

I have used progressive muscle relaxation before meetings and before moments when I needed to focus on what was going on around me. It helped me to be fully present, also allowing my stress levels to decrease. I was first introduced to this technique during a graduate course for a counseling internship.

The professor made space for us to do guided progressive muscle relaxation so that we could all relax after a long, taxing day at work. We sat with our backs flat in the chairs, and our feet flat on the floor. Our professor used a guided PMR from YouTube, so we were all able to follow along. It was also easy to close our eyes and focus since we were being guided by the video.

Conclusion

Progressive muscle relaxation is a wonderful tool for relaxing after a long day, or even as a way to start your day. Not only are these exercises a great way to help focus your mind, but they are also helpful when wanting to relax your body. As counselors and therapists, we encourage trying different types of progressive muscle relaxation, and testing out which is your favorite! If you want to try other relaxation-inducing techniques, read our articles on music therapy that helps with anxiety and grounding techniques that help with anxiety.

References 

Toussaint, L., Nguyen, Q. A., Roettger, C., Dixon, K., Offenbächer, M., Kohls, N., Hirsch, J., & Sirois, F. (2021). Effectiveness of Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Deep Breathing, and Guided Imagery in Promoting Psychological and Physiological States of Relaxation. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine: eCAM, 2021, 5924040. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/5924040

Chaudhuri, A., Ray, M., Saldanha, D., & Bandopadhyay, A. (2014). Effect of progressive muscle relaxation in female health care professionals. Annals of medical and health sciences research, 4(5), 791–795. https://doi.org/10.4103/2141-9248.141573

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4199176/

A picture of Bethany Stanley, LAPC.

Author:

Bethany Stanley is a Licensed Associate Professional Counselor. She provides couples counseling and individual counseling as a therapist at Legacy Marriage Resources, LLC based in Augusta, Georgia. Find out more about her in her Bio.

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