What Is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

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Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a stress management technique that was developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s. This technique involves tightening and relaxing muscles throughout the body, following a specific sequence. PMR can be performed by itself, or as part of other mind-body practices, such as yoga and meditation.

This article discusses progressive muscle relaxation, the benefits, and how to do it.

Woman stretching after yoga

Getty Images / Tom Werner

What Is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

Progressive muscle relaxation involves alternately between contracting and relaxing your muscles throughout the body, in a specific order. This can be done from the top down, starting at your head, or from the bottom up, beginning at your toes.

Being under stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, which is your fight-or-flight response. This part of your nervous system increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing so you can respond to whatever danger you are presented with.

Unfortunately, your body can't tell the difference between an actual emergency and the stress you're experiencing at work. It responds the same way to both situations.

Progressive muscle relaxation works by reducing the activity of your sympathetic nervous system.

Benefits of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation was originally developed to treat symptoms caused by anxiety, but it has since been shown to have both physical and psychological benefits.

Progressive muscle relaxation can help treat these conditions and symptoms:

Avoiding Pain

Progressive muscle relaxation should not be painful. If you experience discomfort, you might be contracting your muscles too hard. If you have an injury, avoid tensing muscles in the affected area. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have concerns.

How to Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation should be performed in a quiet environment. Begin in a comfortable position—either lying down or sitting.

Focus on your breathing during the exercise. Breathe in as you tense your muscles and breathe out as you relax. Don't hold your breath—this will increase tension in your body, which is what you are trying to avoid.

Before you start, notice how your body feels and if there are any areas with more tension than others.

Tense the muscles on both sides of your body at the same time for five seconds, then relax fully. Try this sequence:

  • Squeeze the muscles in your forehead.
  • Clench your teeth.
  • Push your tongue against the roof of your mouth.
  • Press your lips together.
  • Shrug your shoulders.
  • Tense the muscles in your upper arms.
  • Clench your fists and tighten the muscles in your forearms.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles.
  • Arch your back.
  • Squeeze your buttocks together.
  • Tighten the muscles on the front and back of your thighs.
  • Pull your toes up toward your head.
  • Point your toes down.
  • Curl your toes.

Repeat tightening and relaxing the muscles as needed in any areas of the body where you still feel tension after completing the sequence.

Progressive muscle relaxation can also be performed by following a guided script. You might find it easier to relax your mind if you are following the instructions either in person or by listening to a recording.

When to Avoid PMR

Progressive muscle relaxation should not be performed if you have back pain, injuries, or muscle spasms. This practice could make your symptoms worse.

Summary

Progressive muscle relaxation is a stress management technique that involves tightening and relaxing muscles throughout your body, from one end to the other. PMR should be performed in a quiet environment where you can relax and focus on your breathing. This technique helps reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate. It can also improve sleep and decrease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

A Word From Verywell

Progressive muscle relaxation is a stress-relieving technique that should be performed in a quiet environment. A full practice lasts around 20 minutes, but if you're short on time you can just focus on targeting muscles that feel the most tense. Progressive muscle relaxation can be combined with other stress management techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When practicing progressive muscle relaxation, which part of the body do you start with?

    Progressive muscle relaxation can begin at your head, fingertips, or toes. Once you start, you'll contract muscle groups in order.

  • When do you use progressive muscle relaxation?

    Progressive muscle relaxation can be performed every day as part of a self-care routine. It can be particularly beneficial to perform prior to bedtime if you have difficulty sleeping, or during the day when your stress levels are high.

  • What is a progressive muscle relaxation script?

    A progressive muscle relaxation script is a document that can be read aloud to lead people through a PMR practice.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Park SH, Han KS, Kang CB. Relaxation therapy for irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic reviewAsian Nursing Research. 2014;8(3):182-192. doi:10.1016/j.anr.2014.07.001

  5. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Relaxation techniques: What you need to know.

  6. University of Rochester Medical Center. Progressive muscle relaxation script.

  7. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Progressive muscle relaxation.