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Progressive Muscle Relaxation Can Help You Reduce Anxiety and Prevent Panic

What Is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?


Updated June 10, 2014

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a stress and anxiety management technique developed by Chicago physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s. Jacobson theorized that anxiety and stress lead to muscle tension, which, in turn, increases feelings of anxiety. When the body is in a relaxed state, however, there is little muscle tension, leading to decreased anxious feelings. Jacobson believed that if one’s body is relaxed, one’s mind cannot be in a state of angst.

Distinguish Between Tense and Relaxed Muscles

If you have panic disorder, agoraphobia or another type of anxiety disorder, you may experience frequent muscle tension. In fact, chronic muscle tension may be so automatic that it seems normal, and you may have forgotten what it feels like when your muscles are completely relaxed. By employing the progressive muscle relaxation technique, you will be able to quickly rediscover the distinctions between relaxation and tension of various muscle groups.

Try this simple exercise: Make a tight fist while simultaneously flexing your hand upward at the wrist. Focus on the sensations you feel while these muscles are tensed. Hold this position for about 10 seconds and release. Let your hand and arm go limp. Focus on how your relaxed muscles feel. Repeat this a couple of times. Focus on the different feelings and physical sensations between tensing and relaxing your fist.

How Does PMR Ease Anxiety?

Anxiety triggers certain physical changes and sensations, including:

  • Increased blood flow to the muscles
  • Muscle tightening
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Slowed digestive functioning

By using PMR, you can counter these physical changes and sensations to achieve a “relaxation response.” A relaxation response comes from using relaxation techniques to calm your body. During PMR, your breathing slows and your heart rate and blood pressure decrease. When muscles are relaxed, they don’t require as much oxygen as when they are tense. This allows redirection of blood flow from the tense muscles to other areas of the body, which reduces many of the unpleasant physical effects of anxiety.

What Are the Benefits of PMR?

PMR has been shown to be beneficial in easing anxiety, and reducing anxiety has been shown to improve the symptoms of many psychological and medical conditions. This technique is often recommended for people with anxiety disorders, insomnia, chronic pain and other disorders. In fact, some studies of breast cancer patients have shown PMR not only reduces anxiety but depression and treatment induced nausea and vomiting as well.

How to Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Basically, a progressive muscle relaxation exercise involves systematically constricting and relaxing various muscle groups from your feet upward or your head downward. You focus on tensing and relaxing muscle groups in the feet, legs, buttocks, stomach, back, hands, arms, chest, shoulders, neck and face.

To be most effective, you should be sitting or lying down in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be opened or closed, but most people find closing their eyes helps maintain focus during the exercise. Loosen any restrictive clothing, make sure your surroundings are quiet and follow these basic steps:

  1. Do some deep breathing before you begin. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Repeat this several times.
  2. Begin tensing and relaxing muscle groups. Bend your feet upward from the ankle toward your face, flexing as much as you can. Hold this position for about 5 to 10 seconds. Quickly release the tension and remain still for about 20 to 30 seconds.
  3. Gradually work your way upward by tensing and relaxing each set of muscle groups. Hold each tensed position for about 5 to 10 seconds. Allow 20 to 30 seconds of relaxation before moving on to the next muscle group.
  4. Focus on how you feel while you are tensing your muscles and while you are relaxed.
  5. After you’ve completed all of the muscle groups, continue deep breathing and focus on how you feel in this relaxed state. Notice the difference between how you feel now and how you felt at the start of the exercise.

Practice Is a Must

All relaxation techniques are essentially skills, and skills get better with practice. By practicing progressive muscle relaxation regularly, you should be able to achieve a greater depth of relaxation in a shortened amount of time. Once mastered, you should be able to relax tense muscles on cue in many stressful situations.

Special Considerations

  • If you experience feelings of emotional distress while using progressive muscle relaxation, stop and talk to your doctor.
  • If your muscles are sore or if you have an injury to any body part that you want to target with PMR, talk to your doctor before using this technique.
  • If you experience any intense muscle pain while performing this exercise, stop immediately and call your doctor.


Davis, M., Eshelman, E., and McKay, M. "The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 5th Addition" 2000 New Harbinger Publications, Inc.: Oakland, CA.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation. BreastCancer.org. Aug 5, 2008. http://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/comp_med/types/muscle_relax.jsp 08 Aug 27.

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