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Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Reduce Anxiety With This Relaxation Technique

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Updated August 06, 2012

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Relaxation techniques are those strategies used to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. These techniques can be especially helpful for people with panic disorder in that they provide a proactive way to assist in symptom management. Relaxation techniques can be very useful during times of high stress or nervousness and can even help a person with getting through a panic attack.

Some of the most popular relaxation techniques include breathing exercises, visualization, and yoga. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is another common coping skill that has been found to help relieve feelings of stress and anxiety.

What is PMR?

An American physician, Edmund Jacobson, was the first to develop PMR in the 1920s. Jacobson initially came up with the idea after noting that regardless of their illness, the majority of his patients suffered from muscle pain and tension. He suggested to his patients that they just relax. However, Jacobson soon realized that most people did not notice their own bodily tension and were completely unaware as to how to relax. Determined to help his patients, Jacobson devised a sequence of steps for tightening and then relaxing groups of muscles.

Jacobson’s series was the beginning of PMR, a technique that has since been modified many times. All variations of PMR are based off of Jacobson’s original idea of systematically squeezing and then releasing isolated muscle groups. His technique allows people to become more aware of their tension, learn how to let go of it, and recognize what it feels like to be in a relaxed state.

To try PMR on your own, simply start by clenching your fist as hard as you can. Notice how tight your fingers and forearm feel. Count to ten and then quickly release the tension. Allow your hand to completely relax and let go of any tension. Let your hand go limp and notice how different this feels than when you had your fist tightened.

You can also try this technique with your shoulders. Lift your shoulders up towards your ears. Feel the tightness in your neck, chest, and back. Count to ten and while exhaling, let your shoulders drop down. Focus on letting go of all of the stiffness in your shoulders, neck, and back. Repeat a few more times and notice how different you feel in a tense versus a relaxed state.

What Are the Benefits of PMR?

PMR works to help control the flight-or-fight response, or stress reaction, that is often triggered among those with anxiety disorders. The flight-or-fight response is accountable for feelings of excessive fear or perceived threats that are typically greater than any actual danger in the environment. For example, people with agoraphobia may become afraid of crowds, fearing that they won’t be able to escape or that they will embarrass themselves by having a panic attack.

This flight-or-fight stress reaction often leads to many uncomfortable physical symptoms, including accelerated heart rate, sweating, shaking, and shortness of breath. Additionally, muscle pain, tension, and stiffness are some of the most common symptoms brought on by stress and anxiety. Relaxation techniques, including PMR, have the reverse effect on the body, eliciting the relaxation response, lowering heart rate, calming the mind, and reducing bodily tension. PMR can also help a person become more aware of how their physical stress may be contributing to their emotional state. By relaxing the body, a person may be able to also release their anxious thoughts and feelings.

What Are the Steps to Doing PMR?

PMR involves letting go of the tension of your body to bring a sense of relaxation. It is performed by constricting and releasing your various muscle groups. The premise of PMR is that by relieving the stress you have built up throughout your body, you are able to quiet and calm your mind.

Before you begin, get into a comfortable position in a place that is free of distraction. You can start off sitting in a chair or lying down. Close your eyes if that feels best for you and then work your way through the following steps:

  1. Breathe. Begin with a deep breathing exercise. Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling your abdomen rise as you fill your body with air. Then slowly exhale out the mouth, the navel pulling in toward the spine as you expel the stale air out. Repeat 3-5 cycles of deep breathing.

  2. Tighten and release your muscles. Start with your feet by clenching your toes and pressing your heels toward the ground. Squeeze tightly for a few breaths and then release. Now flex your feet in, pointing your toes up towards your head. Hold for a few seconds and then release.

  3. Continue to work your way up your body, tightening and then letting go of each muscle group. Work your way up to your legs, abdomen, back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and face.

  4. Try to tighten each muscle group for a few breaths and then slowly release. You can repeat any areas that feel especially stiff.

  5. Notice any differences you feel between tightening your muscles and relaxing them.

  6. End your practice by taking a few more deep breaths, noting how much more calm and relaxed you feel.

Just like learning any new skill, PMR requires practice. By practicing PMR several times a week, you will become more aware of what it's like to feel relaxed. Understanding this feeling can help you to more readily let go of tension when anxiety rises. Being able to quickly relax your body can also help you in managing stress and panic attacks.

Sources:

Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., & McKay, M. (2008). The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, 6th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Seaward, B. L. (2011). Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Wellbeing, 7th Edition. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

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