Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique where a person tenses and relaxes different muscles in their body to relieve tension and induce a relaxation response.
In this article we will look at PMR in more detail, including what it is, how to practice it, and its benefits.
PMR is a relaxation technique that involves tensing and relaxing specific muscles in turn. Usually, a person begins with the feet and works their way up the body, taking deep, slow breaths throughout the exercise.
By focusing on tensing and relaxing muscles individually, a person becomes focused on the present moment. If their attention wanders, they can refocus again on how their body feels as they work their way through the exercise. This encourages mindfulness. Another name for the exercise is a “body scan” meditation.
The goal of PMR is to bring about a relaxation response. The relaxation response causes the body to transition from an alert, active state into a more restful one. It causes physiological changes, such as:
- slower breathing
- slower heart rate
- lower blood pressure
- lower cortisol levels
People can induce the relaxation response to relieve stress or anxiety, help them get to sleep, or ease tense muscles. Some people also use PMR at the end of a yoga session or as a form of meditation.
To try PMR:
- Find a peaceful and quiet place to do the exercise. Sit in a chair or lie down on the floor or a bed. If it feels comfortable, close the eyes.
- Keeping the mouth closed, inhale deeply and slowly through the nose. Exhale slowly through the mouth and imagine tension leaving the body.
- Repeat these deep breaths three or four more times. If it causes dizziness, breathe normally instead.
- On the fifth inhale, squeeze the muscles in the toes and feet and count to four. Then exhale slowly through the mouth, gradually releasing tension from the feet.
- Repeat step four, this time for the calf muscles. Tense the calf muscles while breathing in, then release when breathing out.
Continue to repeat a pattern of tensing muscles while inhaling and then relaxing them while exhaling for muscles all the way up the body. This includes the:
- hands, by making fists
- shoulders, by shrugging them toward the ears
- jaw, by clenching the teeth and releasing
- face, by scrunching the facial muscles and releasing
After releasing tension from a body part, take a few deep breaths before moving onto the next part. Think about breathing out tension with each exhale.
At the end of the exercise, be still for a while and notice how it feels. If a person needs to get up, they can slowly open their eyes and gently move out of their position.
The main benefit of PMR is that it reduces mental and physical stress.
When someone feels stressed, it can trigger the body’s stress response. This elevates breathing, heart rate, and the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. In the short term, these changes are not harmful and can help someone if they are in a dangerous or threatening situation.
But long-term exposure to stress has a range of health effects. It can:
- cause muscle tension in the neck and shoulders
- contribute to headache or migraine
- worsen the symptoms of chronic conditions, such as chronic pain, asthma, and digestive disorders
- contribute to a low sex drive or fertility problems
- raise the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke
Regularly making time for relaxation or the use of relaxation techniques can reduce the impact of stress. PMR may also have specific benefits, such as:
- Reducing migraine frequency: A small 2016 study found that PMR training reduced the number of migraine episodes 35 participants experienced. It also normalized a type of brainwave that doctors associate with migraine, implying that this exercise may work on a physiological level.
- Reducing lower back pain: The American College of Physicians supports the use of several therapies for mild to moderate lower back pain, including PMR.
- Reducing dental anxiety: For some, fear of going to the dentist prevents them from seeking treatment. A
small 2018 trialfound that participants who practiced PMR training had significantly lower dental anxiety than the control group. They also had lower scores for depression symptoms.
- Helping people in hospital: People with burns can experience high levels of anxiety. A small 2019 study found that people with burns experienced better quality sleep and felt less anxious after practicing PMR.
Many of these studies involved a low number of participants, so more research on the specific applications of PMR are necessary.
If someone is just getting started with PMR, they may find it helpful to:
- set aside a regular time each day for PMR, such as before sleep
- choose a quiet, calm space in which to practice
- use audio or video tutorials to guide the process
- listen to relaxing music
- practice consistently in order to establish a routine
If someone does not find PMR effective, there are many other relaxation techniques, including:
- breathing exercises
- yoga, tai chi, or qi gong
- visualization exercises
- biofeedback-assisted relaxation
People can try different approaches to find what works for them.
If a person finds that they cannot easily relax, sleep, or manage mental health symptoms even when regularly making time to relax, they may wish to speak with a doctor or therapist.
PMR is a type of relaxation technique that can help reduce the symptoms of stress. It involves tensing and then relaxing individual muscles one at a time. This slows breathing, brings a person’s focus to the present moment, and activates the body’s relaxation response.
People can practice PMR at home by finding a quiet space, sitting or lying down, and then gradually tensing and relaxing muscles from the feet up to the head.
If the exercise does not help, there are many other relaxation techniques and therapies to try. People with persistent mental health symptoms may find it helpful to have professional support from a doctor or therapist.