Learn the steps involved in progressive muscle relaxation and find out why it’s an important way to reduce stress and anxiety. Plus, get tips on what to do if you’re not getting the hang of it.
This can help if:
- you’re feeling stressed
- you’re feeling anxious
- you want to learn how to relax.
Why progressive muscle relaxation is so useful
When you feel stressed out or anxious, or if you have an anxiety disorder, you often develop really tight muscles. The good news is, this can work in reverse, too: you can actually reduce the stress and anxiety you feel by learning how to relax your muscles properly. Progressive muscle relaxation is the most common type of relaxation training.
How to do progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and relaxing different groups of muscles throughout your body. It works best if you practise it regularly for at least eight weeks, as it takes time for your body to get used to it. Set yourself up for success. A realistic goal might be three times a week for eight weeks.
Before you get started, be sure to:
- find a quiet space free of distractions. Switch off your phone and avoid being around other people if they’re likely to be a distraction.
- get comfortable. Wear loose-fitting clothes, take off your shoes, and if you’ve eaten recently, wait awhile for your food to digest.
- fit on a chair in a comfortable position. You can also lie down if you prefer, but you’re more likely to fall asleep. (This is perfectly okay. If you nod off, you obviously needed the rest!)
- When you’re ready to start, focus on your breathing for a minute or two, just to get settled.
- Start with your right foot (or left, it doesn’t matter). As you breathe in, tense all the muscles in your foot as hard as you can.
- Hold your foot muscles tense and count to 10, breathing normally.
- When you reach 10, as you exhale, release your foot muscles so that they’re completely relaxed.
- Count to 20, continuing to breathe normally.
Now, repeat the process, using the same foot. When you’ve tensed and relaxed the same foot twice, move on to the next group of muscles in the order listed below.
Recommended order of muscle tensing
- Right foot
- Right lower leg and foot
- Entire right leg
- Left foot
- Left lower leg and foot
- Entire left leg
- Right hand
- Right forearm and hand
- Entire right arm
- Left hand
- Left forearm and hand
- Entire left arm
- Abdomen (tummy)
- Neck and shoulders
Tense muscles for 10 seconds, relax for 20, repeat. The idea is to relax and tense all the muscles in your body, starting with your feet and working your way up.
Finishing a session
When you’ve finished tensing your face muscles for the second time:
- stay relaxed, with your eyes closed
- count slowly backwards from ten to one
- stand up slowly. If you get up too quickly, the drop in blood pressure can make you feel dizzy or lightheaded.
If you’re having trouble
Progressive muscle relaxation training can be hard at first. You may have trouble staying focused. The main thing to remember is that the more you practise it, the easier it will become. Try not to get discouraged!
You may find it easier if you have someone guide you through the steps, so that you’re not distracted by trying to remember which muscle group to focus on. Or, try a progressive muscle relaxation audio track or video to guide you.