By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated June 22, 2012)
People who suffer from anxiety often clench various muscles without realizing it, which can trick the brain into imagining a threat and reacting with fight-or-flight panic, as well as causing muscle soreness and other problems. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) helps to reduce anxiety and muscle tension, giving you more control over your body.
How to Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Set aside 15 minutes at least once a day (and preferably twice a day when you first start out) to do this exercise. Timing doesn’t really matter, with the exception of avoiding doing PMR right after meals when your body is busy digesting.
Change into loose, comfortable clothing, turn off the phone, dim the lights, and lie down on a comfortable surface or sit in a comfortable chair. Take several slow deep breaths and then begin clenching and releasing various muscle groups starting with your feet and moving up to your facial muscles. Hold each clench for 5-10 seconds and continue breathing normally throughout.
Focus on the difference between the feeling of tension and the resulting relaxation as you release each muscle group, and wait 10-15 seconds before squeezing the next group (make sure that you only contract the target group and not any other muscles). After each clench, feel the tension flowing out of the area like water. Say the words “loosen” or “relax” in your mind to cue the release of tension.
How to Tense Each Muscle Group for PMR
The following are some effective ways to tense each muscle group:
- Foot: Curl your toes downward
- Foot and lower leg: Pull your toes upward, toward your head
- Upper leg: Tense your thigh muscles
- Hand: Clench your fist (you can do both fists at once or one and then the other)
- Arm: Draw your forearm toward your shoulder and make a fist to clench the bicep
- Buttocks: Squeeze your gluteal muscles together
- Stomach: Suck your stomach inward toward your spine
- Chest: Take a deep breath
- Shoulders and neck: Raise your shoulders toward your ears
- Mouth and jaw: Open as wide as possible, as if making an exaggerated smile, clenching your jaw at the same time
- Eyes: Squeeze your eyes shut
- Forehead: Raise your eyebrows as high as possible
If you would like verbal guidance during the exercise, there are progressive muscle relaxation CDs available, or you can record your own or have a friend make a recording for you.
Initially, you may find that you’re easily distracted and unsure if the process is working. However, if you practice regularly, you’ll get better and better at using PMR to release tension, and when you become really good at PMR, you should be able to release tension without having to clench your muscles at all. In other words, you’ll be able to simply focus on a body part and will it to relax, and it will respond. This happens because PMR creates new brain circuits that help you relax on command.
The end of a PMR session is a good time to do a visualization to further increase relaxation.
For more anxiety reduction techniques, visit the main Natural Anxiety and Panic Treatments page.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical or psychiatric advice. Medical concerns should be referred to a qualified doctor.
- Centre for Clinical Interventions. (n.d.). “Progressive Muscle Relaxation.” CCI.Health.wa.gov.au.
- Dryden-Edwards, R., MD (Author), Conrad Stoppler, M., MD (Editor). (2010, 25 March). “Panic Attacks.” EMedicineHealth.com.
- Smith, M., MA; Segal, R., MA; & Segal, J., PhD. (2012, January). “Therapy for Anxiety Disorders.” HelpGuide.org.
- Wilson, R., Dr. (n.d.). “Panic Attacks.” Anxieties.com.