The body responds to stress with muscle tension, which can cause pain or discomfort. In turn, tense muscles relay to the body that it's stressed, which keeps the stress–muscle-tension cycle going. Progressive muscle relaxation helps break this cycle by reducing muscle tension and general mental anxiety. Progressive muscle relaxation often helps people get to sleep.
You can use a recording to help you go through all the muscle groups, or you can just learn the order of muscle groups and work through them from memory.
- Choose a place where you can lie down on your back and stretch out comfortably, such as a carpeted floor.
- Inhale and tense each muscle group (hard but not to the point of cramping) for 4 to 10 seconds, then exhale and suddenly and completely relax the muscle group (do not relax it gradually). Give yourself 10 to 20 seconds to relax.
- When you are finished, return to alertness by counting backwards from 5 to 1.
Muscle groups and how to tense them
- Hands: Clench them.
- Wrists and forearms: Extend them and bend your hands back at the wrist.
- Biceps and upper arms: Clench your hands into fists, bend your arms at the elbows, and flex your biceps.
- Shoulders: Shrug them.
- Forehead: Wrinkle it into a deep frown.
- Around the eyes and bridge of the nose: Close your eyes as tightly as possible. (Remove contact lenses before beginning the exercise.)
- Cheeks and jaws: Smile as widely as you can.
- Around the mouth: Press your lips together tightly. (Check your facial area for tension.)
- Back of the neck: Press your head back hard.
- Front of the neck: Touch your chin to your chest. (Check your neck and head for tension.)
- Chest: Take a deep breath and hold it, then exhale.
- Back: Arch your back up and away from the floor.
- Stomach: Suck it into a tight knot. (Check your chest and stomach for tension.)
- Hips and buttocks: Press the buttocks together tightly.
- Thighs: Clench them hard.
- Lower legs: Point your toes toward your face, as if trying to bring the toes up to touch your head. Then point your toes away and curl them downward at the same time. (Check the area from your waist down for tension.)
Progressive muscle relaxation is sometimes combined with meditation.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health