Progressive Muscle Relaxation Benefits and How-To Guide

Medically Reviewed By Daniel Bubnis, M.S., NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS
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Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a relaxation technique that focuses on tensing and releasing the muscles. You focus on one muscle group at a time, beginning at the feet and working your way up to your forehead, or vice versa. This can help relieve symptoms from a range of conditions, including anxiety, headaches, and insomnia. All you need to practice PMR is a quiet space where you can be alone to sit or lie down. Each session takes around 10–15 minutes, though you may find that you become quicker as you get used to PMR.

PMR should not hurt or cause any discomfort. It is an opportunity for you to spend some time in a personal space, focusing on relaxing your body to ease stress and tension.

Read on to learn more about how to do PMR. This guide also explains who can do PMR and what it can help with.

What is progressive muscle relaxation?

A woman is relaxing in the grass.
Michela Ravasio/Stocksy United

PMR is an approach to relieving stress and anxiety. By focusing on tensing and releasing tight muscles in your body, your mind and body work together to help you relax.

You can practice PMR to help alleviate a wide variety of symptoms and conditions. This can refer to mental health conditions, such as anxiety or stress, or physical health conditions, such as headaches.

How long does progressive muscle relaxation take?

Each session takes up to 15 minutes. You will tense each muscle group in turn before slowly relaxing.

Once you have practiced the technique a few times, you will find your own rhythm. You may find that you need more or less time for you to feel relaxed. You may also wish to carry out PMR several times per day.

Vs. progressive relaxation

PMR should not cause any pain, but if you find that tensing your muscles causes you discomfort, you may prefer to try progressive relaxation.

Progressive relaxation focuses solely on relaxing the muscles. Similarly to PMR, you can work your way through each muscle group, concentrating on them in turn. Instead of tightening the muscles, however, focus only on relaxing and softening them.

Is progressive muscle relaxation the same as mindfulness?

PMR and mindfulness are both mind-body techniques. A therapist or clinician may recommend one or both as part of cognitive behavioral therapy.

However, the intended outcomes of each technique differ. With relaxation techniques, the aim is to reduce stress and tension. With mindfulness, the goal is to make the person more aware and accepting of their thoughts and feelings in the moment.

How to do progressive muscle relaxation

PMR involves the tightening and relaxing of each muscle group in turn. To get started with PMR, follow these steps:

  1. Find a quiet, comfortable space where you can lie down or sit up straight.
  2. Gently inhale. Then, starting at either the forehead or the feet, tense the muscle group and hold it for around 5 seconds.
  3. Exhale and release the muscles for around 5 seconds.
  4. Repeat these steps for the rest of the muscle groups in the body.

You can begin at your feet and work your way up to your forehead, or vice versa. With pairs of muscle groups, such as the feet and the arms, you can focus on the right and left sides at the same time or focus on each side separately.

See the table below for a list of the muscle groups you can work on during PMR.

Body partTense the muscle by…
feet and lower legstightening your calf muscle, pointing your toes away from you, then curling them upward
thighsclenching or tightening your thigh muscles, which may make your lower legs lift up slightly
buttockstightening the muscles in your buttocks
stomachtightening or sucking in your stomach muscle
lower backsqueezing your shoulder blades together or raising your back slightly from the ground
hands and armsmaking a fist and holding it clenched, then tightening the muscles in your arms
shoulders and neckshrugging your shoulders toward your ears while moving your chin toward your chest
jaw and mouthclenching your jaw and smiling
eyesshutting your eyes tightly
foreheadwrinkling your brow

What can progressive muscle relaxation help with?

As PMR helps reduce stress and tension, it can help with a range of both physical and mental health conditions.

Examples of conditions that PMR can help with include:

How does progressive muscle relaxation help with anxiety?

One 2021 study highlights that PMR can help with anxiety. When the researchers tested PMR alongside other relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and guided imagery, they found that PMR techniques were the most effective in reducing anxiety.

Muscle tension commonly coincides with stress and anxiety. As your brain feels anxious, the muscles begin to tense. Because PMR is a mind-body technique, it allows the body to communicate with the mind. This means that physically relaxing the muscles in the body can have a positive effect on reducing anxiety in the brain.

Learn more about anxiety here.

Who can do progressive muscle relaxation?

PMR may be an effective technique for anybody experiencing stress, anxiety, or tension. All you need is a quiet place to sit or lie down, making it straightforward to practice without needing any special equipment or settings.

Progressive muscle relaxation for children

Children may benefit from PMR. You may wish to guide the child through the technique to help them relax and improve their overall well-being, or you may prefer to practice PMR alongside them.

Whether the child is having difficulty sleeping or is feeling stressed and anxious, PMR is an activity that you can share and bond over.

PMR may also be useful in a classroom setting. Around 10–40% of students experience test anxiety, which occurs when there is pressure to perform well, such as during a test or exam.

Children may benefit from a teacher, school counselor, or school psychologist reading out a PMR script for children. However, there needs to be more research into the benefits of school-based PMR to understand how effective it is at easing test anxiety.

Who should avoid trying progressive muscle relaxation?

Although PMR helps reduce stress and tension, it may make symptoms worse for some people. A 2020 article found that PMR increased anxiety in 15–54% of individuals with an anxiety disorder.

The researchers believe that this increase in anxiety was due to fears of the effects of relaxation and the loss of control. If you have an anxiety disorder and are unsure about trying PMR, contact your doctor or therapist for advice.

Other relaxation techniques

PMR is a mind-body technique that can relieve stress and help you relax. However, PMR is not for everybody. If you try this technique and feel that it does not ease your symptoms or it makes you uncomfortable, you may prefer to try other relaxation techniques.

Other relaxation techniques include:

  • Progressive relaxation: Progressive relaxation is similar to PMR, except that you do not tense the muscles. Instead, you focus only on relaxing and softening the muscles.
  • Breathing techniques: Breathing techniques can help calm you down and provide you with time to focus solely on your breathing.
    • Deep breathing: Deep breathing involves slowly inhaling through your nose, then slowly exhaling through your mouth. This can help calm feelings of anxiety or panic.
    • 4-7-8 breathing: The 4-7-8 technique involves holding your breath for a set amount of time, then letting go of the breath as if also letting go of the anxiety. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, and slowly exhale for 8 seconds.
    • Alternate nostril breathing: A popular technique in yoga, alternate nostril breathing helps you slow down or steady your breathing while also giving you something to concentrate on. It involves placing a thumb or finger over one nostril and breathing through the other nostril, alternating between the two.
  • Guided imagery: With guided imagery, you use your mind and imagination to take you into a different situation or setting. This can include listening to an audio recording that guides you through a peaceful location such as a forest or a beach, providing you with calming thoughts away from any source of stress or anxiety.
  • Yoga: Yoga is an ancient practice that can help you relieve stress and anxiety. It can also help relieve neck and lower back pain.

Learn about more ways to manage stress here.

Summary

PMR is a mind-body relaxation technique that focuses on tensing and releasing the muscles. You can practice PMR while lying down or sitting in a chair, and it takes only around 15 minutes at a time.

By tensing each muscle group and relaxing them in turn, your body is able to tell your brain that it is entering a state of relaxation. In turn, this can help soothe feelings of stress and anxiety.

You should not feel any pain or discomfort when practicing PMR. It allows you to control your breathing while reducing stress, and it may also be suitable for relieving other symptoms, such as those associated with headaches, IBS, and insomnia.

Contact your doctor or therapist if you are experiencing severe or frequent periods of anxiety or stress. They will be able to recommend other treatments that may be suitable for you. You can also discuss with them any thoughts you may have about practicing PMR.

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Medical Reviewer: Daniel Bubnis, M.S., NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 12
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