[DA0144] Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Do you experience pain in your back, neck, or head when you feel stressed? Do your hands and legs freeze up when you get anxious? Emotions such as anxiety, worry, stress, and fear may cause increased muscle tension in various parts of your body. However, progressive muscle relaxation is an effective way to relieve the tension you feel. 

What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)?

Progressive muscle relaxation is a widely utilized deep relaxation strategy. It involves focusing on a particular group of muscles, tensing those muscles, and then relaxing them suddenly. As the tension is released, your attention should be focused on how different your muscles feel when they are relaxed compared to when they are tight. The technique is repeated until all the major muscle groups in your body have had a period of tension and relaxation. 

Progressive muscle relaxation was conceived by Dr. Edmund Jacobson, an American physiologist and psychiatrist. He believed mental calmness could be achieved through physical relaxation. PMR was first presented at Harvard University in 1908, before Jacobson published a book on the technique in 1929. He continued to investigate and develop progressive muscle relaxation throughout his lifetime.

What Can PMR Help With?

PMR is primarily used to treat symptoms of anxiety, stress, and chronic pain. It is also used as an adjunct treatment for many physical and mental health conditions. Progressive muscle relaxation relieves tension without the use of drugs or chemicals. As a result, the approach can be used to support various pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments.As progressive muscle relaxation does not require medication, there are no dangerous side effects to watch out for. Another excellent benefit is its minimal cost. Progressive muscle relaxation has even had positive results for people who are trying to quit smoking. These individuals report reduced cravings and fewer withdrawal symptoms.    

    Physical Concerns

Stiff muscles are associated with a number of physical health concerns. Some of the physical issues progressive muscle relaxation may help with include:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Cancer-related pain
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease

    Stress Management

When you experience stress in your life, your body elicits a stress response. This reaction is characterized by a series of physiological changes such as the release of stress hormones, a faster heart rate, higher energy levels, rapid breathing, higher blood pressure, and tense muscles. This cascade of events may occur before your brain’s visual centers have an opportunity to process what is happening. When you are faced with danger or a stressor, the stress response puts you in position to fight or run away immediately. 

Chronic stress can contribute to many health issues in the long run. However, you can counter your body’s stress response by triggering a relaxation response. Progressive muscle relaxation can be used to relieve muscular tension in minutes. If you are proficient at using the technique you can regain control of your body, get yourself to calm down, and manage stressors in a healthy, efficient manner. 

    Mental Concerns

Progressive muscle relaxation is used to treat a variety of adverse mental health conditions. This is because practitioners of PMR are strong believers in the mind-body connection. Many mental concerns are associated with specific physical signs and symptoms. By addressing these physical symptoms, supporters of progressive muscle relaxation posit they can manage mental and behavioral issues.

PMR is used as a primary and supportive treatment for a several mental concerns. Some of these concerns include:

  • Anxiety
  • Schizophrenia
  • Dementia
  • Addiction  

How to Get Started with PMR

An environment that is cozy and free of distractions is best for practicing progressive muscle relaxation. To create this environment you may need to turn off your TV, phone, laptop, or radio. The use of soft lighting, loose clothing, and a comfortable chair are recommended. You should also select a space where you can lie on your back, take off your shoes, and stretch out comfortably.

It may be best to avoid large, heavy meals before you do PMR. Ingesting prescription medications, recreational drugs, or alcohol may also interfere with the effectiveness of the technique. Before you begin practicing progressive muscle relaxation take note of any physical injuries or muscle pains you have. If you feel intense pain during the tension or relaxation phases you may need to consult a doctor before you continue.


Proper breathing is key if you want the best results from progressive muscle relaxation. Your breathing also needs to be in sync with your phases of muscle tension and relaxation. While this instruction may sound complicated, it is actually quite easy in practice. The general procedure for progressive muscle relaxation is outlined below:

  1. Go to your chosen environment or space, slow down your breathing, and give yourself the opportunity to relax.
  2. Inhale and tense the first muscle group for 5-10 seconds. Contract your muscles strongly but not until the point of feeling pain.
  3. Exhale and relax the first muscle group suddenly (not gradually).
  4. Relax for 10-20 seconds before you go to the next group of muscles. Pay attention to how different your muscles feel when they are tense and when they are relaxed.
  5. After tensing and releasing all muscle groups, countdown from 5 to 1 to bring your focus back to the present and regain your alertness. 

    Muscle Groups 

Healthcare professionals who utilize progressive muscle relaxation recommend contracting and releasing one muscle group at a time. They may also suggest working your muscle groups in a specific order. The following list covers different muscle groups in order and tells you how to tense them for best results. Depending on the muscles being worked, you may want to sit upright or lie on your back.  

  • Right hand and forearm – clench your hand into a fist.
  • Right upper arm – bring your forearm toward your right shoulder to contract your bicep
  • Left hand and forearm – repeat steps for right hand and forearm
  • Left upper arm – repeat steps for right upper arm
  • Forehead – raise your eyebrows as high as you can
  • Cheeks and eyes – squeeze your eyes shut as tightly as you can
  • Jaw and mouth – open your mouth as widely as you can
  • Neck – sit upright then tilt your head back slowly to look at the ceiling
  • Shoulders – lift your shoulders toward your ears
  • Shoulder blades and back – Push your shoulder blades back and stick your chest out
  • Chest and stomach – take deep breaths to fill your lungs and chest with air
  • Hips and buttocks – squeeze your buttocks tightly
  • Right upper leg – squeeze your right thigh muscle
  • Right lower leg – stretch your calf muscle by pulling your toes toward you
  • Right foot – curl your toes downward
  • Left upper leg – repeat steps for right upper leg
  • Left lower leg – repeat steps for right lower leg
  • Left foot – repeat steps for right foot

After you learn how to tense and relax each muscle group, you may target tight muscles without going through the entire sequence. 


Mindfulness is a crucial component of progressive muscle relaxation. Mindfulness is a mental state where you are completely focused on what is happening in the present, without judgment. To get the most out of your PMR session, you have to let go of negative experiences from the past and stop worrying about the future. As you practice PMR your focus should be on how your muscles feel as they contract and relax.

Soothing visualizations may be helpful as you undergo progressive muscle relaxation. Many people benefit from thinking about anxiety and stress leaving their body as they relax their muscles.

    Daily Practice

If you practice progressive muscle relaxation each day you will have better results over time. Practice helps you to become more aware of your muscles, how they work, and how they respond to stress and relaxation. PMR can be learned by almost anyone and the technique requires only 10-20 minutes each day. While it is often used to help people with health issues, it is also beneficial for individuals who have excellent mental and physical health.

Progressive muscle relaxation harnesses the power of positive psychology and the mind-body connection. The procedure is fast, effective, and easy-to-learn. If you are experiencing severe anxiety or stress, PMR may provide the relief you seek. Best of all, you will never have to contend with expensive costs or dangerous side effects during treatment. 

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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