A Guide to Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This guide to Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a guest blog article by Kelsey Christensen, a student who is completing her final year in the Masters of Counseling Psychology Program at Northwestern University. Kelsey currently serves as a clinical intern at Truman College Wellness Center, which provides individual counseling to credit, continuing education, adult education, and ELL students. Kelsey has also worked as a student clinician at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, a nationally recognized psychotherapy and research institution.

What Is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a technique that involves tensing specific muscle groups and then relaxing them to create awareness of what tension and relaxation feels like. It is done progressively and proceeds through all major muscle groups, relaxing them one at a time, and eventually leads to total muscle relaxation.

Why Should I Try It?

Do you find yourself: Feeling worried? Feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Ruminating and unable to turn your mind off? Feeling physically tense? Breathing rapidly and shallowly?

Although this strategy may sound rather different or overly simple, it can be very effective in managing many symptoms of stress, anxiety, and moments of panic/intense anxiety. It can also help individuals with falling asleep. As human beings, we all experience stress, worry, and anxiety at certain points in our lives and this can be a good tool to have in our toolbox that helps relax us physically and mentally.

Where Do I Start?

At first, it is good to practice doing a progressive muscle relaxation several times. While you are first learning, practice while not feeling particularly stressed or anxious, if possible.

You may learn PMR by following the instructions at the end of this document. Add relaxing background music, if desired. You may also follow along to a video that includes instructions and relaxing music – see below for links.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Instructions

TO BEGIN: Sit with your back fairly straight. Close your eyes and take a deep breathe in through your nose. If you are able to, you may also lay down on a comfortable surface.

Tip: Try “3-3-5” breathing, in which you breathe in for three seconds, hold for three seconds, and release for five seconds.

As you breathe deeply, focus your attention on your feet.

Toes – Curl your toes as tightly as you can and hold for five seconds. Relax.

Calves – Flex feet to tighten calves and hold for five seconds. Relax.

Thighs – Tighten your thigh muscles by pressing your knees together as tightly as you can for five seconds.

Hips and buttocks – Flex your hip and buttock muscles for five seconds. Relax.

Stomach – Focus on your belly button, take a deep breath in, release that breath, and tighten stomach muscles.

Shoulders – Move your shoulders forward, squeeze chest muscles and hold for five seconds. Relax.

Hands – Extend your arms in front of you. Clench your fists tightly for five seconds. Relax. Feel the warmth and calmness in your hands as you release.

Upper arms – Bend your elbows. Tense your biceps for five seconds. Relax. Feel the tension leave your arms.

Back – Squeeze shoulder blades together and hold for five seconds. Relax. Feel the anxiety and tension leave your body as you relax.

Forehead – Wrinkle your forehead; try to make your eyebrows touch your hairline for five seconds. Relax.

Eyes and nose – Close your eyes as tightly as you can for five seconds. Relax.

Lips, cheeks, and jaw – Tighten your lips, cheeks, and jaw and hold for five seconds. Relax. Feel the warmth and calmness in your face.

Focus on any muscles that may still feel tense. Breathe in for three seconds, hold for three seconds, and release for five seconds – releasing any remaining tension.

Once you begin to feel relaxed, which may happen today or with practice. Focus your attention on feeling warm as if you were on a sunny beach. Let the light and warmth go through your relaxed body. Feel the waves come in and out with your breathing. Stay in this moment.

TO END: Slowly become aware and active. Become aware of your feet pressing on the floor, feel your body on the chair. Take five deep breaths with each breath becoming more alert. Wiggle your fingers and your toes.

Helpful Links of Guided PMR Videos

(Special thank you to clinical resources at Truman College Wellness Center and Therapist Aid for helping make this comprehensive PMR guide possible)

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