Progressive Relaxation



Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. - Chinese Proverb


Muscle Physiology

To understand why progressive relaxation works as another effective form of relaxation, it is useful to begin this chapter with a brief look at how muscles work. The human body contains over 400 voluntary skeletal muscles. Skeletal muscles are involved in several physiological functions including generating force (strength and speed), generating heat, maintaining posture and assisting in the breathing process.

Our muscles are composed of many layers of muscle fibers which are bundled together with other muscle fibers and share nerve endings leading to the nervous system. These fibers grouped together make up what is known as a motor unit. When a motor unit gets a message from the nervous system, there is a release of bursts of energy in each of the muscle fibers. When this occurs tiny filaments, which are the smallest parts of the muscle, slide toward each other and cause a contraction or shortening of the muscle fibers. (Perhaps a picture of a muscle fiber contracting could go here)

An interesting aspect of muscle contraction, based on the way that a muscle contracts when it receives the signal from the nervous system, is called the All or Nothing principle of muscle contraction. Simply stated, it says that a muscle motor unit is either entirely contracting or entirely not contracting (relaxed). Our skeletal muscles are naturally in a state of non-contraction, they are naturally relaxed. When a nervous system signal reaches a muscle motor unit, somewhere in the body, all the muscles in this motor unit contract completely. When the message to stop contracting is sent to these contracting muscles, this muscle motor unit relaxes completely. In other words, it returns to its normally non-contracting state. A muscle motor unit does not partially contract. It is either contracting maximally, or not at all; hence the name, all or nothing principle. The way that a muscle is able to lift greater amounts of weight is by recruiting surrounding muscles to assist in the effort. The recruited muscles similarly contract maximally and then go back to non-contraction.


What does all this muscle physiology have to do with stress management? Many muscles in the body remain in this chronically contracted state because they are continuously receiving the message from the nervous system that they should be contracting in order to fight or run from the big bear. They don’t receive the signal from the nervous system that the threat has passed and it is okay to relax. An example of this is often found in a person’s shoulders. They might feel tight and sore because these muscles are continually tensed.

It was a man named Edmond Jacobson who in 1929 first caught on to this idea of tension and relaxation in the muscles. He was a doctor living in Chicago working with patients who suffered from a variety of maladies. He noticed one common characteristic of nearly all of his patients and that was muscle tension. Working with his patients, he found that they were able to diminish the severity of the disorder as they were able to reduce or relieve muscle tension. Jacobson found that most of his patients had no idea that they had excess muscle tension in various places in their bodies. He found that as his patients were asked to consciously flex these tensed up areas, and then consciously relieve that tension, the contracting muscles would become relaxed. Jacobson understood that a muscle can’t be contracting and relaxing at the same time and by forcibly tensing a muscle and then consciously releasing the contraction, the muscles would naturally return to their naturally relaxed position. Thus was born the relaxation technique called Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR). It has also been called Progressive Neuromuscular Relaxation identifying the autonomic nervous system activity in initiating and turning off muscle tension. Another name for PMR is Active Progressive Relaxation. Progressive relaxation is probably the most commonly used form of relaxation therapy in western society today.

Why PMR works!

Recall, from our earlier chapters, that one of the immediate actions of the fight or flight response is an increase in muscular tension in order to generate immediate power to either run or fight. This is an automatic response in the presence of a threat. As was also mentioned, most of our threats of modern day society are ones that we create in our own minds. There are no “big bears” that we have to run from or fight. However, since we still perceive threats in our environment, the autonomic nervous system treats today’s threats the same as it did in ages past, by gearing up to run or fight. As a result, our muscles become tense. The dilemma of our day is that because our threats don’t immediately come to an end – daily work pressures, school requirements, or ongoing battles with our partner, etc., – we never come out of the fight or flight response and therefore, muscle contraction is continuous. The muscle tension does not turn off.

Progressive muscle relaxation is designed to initiate parasympathetic nervous system activity in a consciously directed way by first tensing a group of muscles and then consciously releasing the tension in that muscle group. It is called progressive muscle relaxation because one moves progressively through the major areas of the body. With the body either seated or lying down, the mind focuses on a specific area of the body, like the left arm and hand. Directions are given to make the hand into a clenching fist and tightening the fist to an almost maximum level for about 5 to 8 seconds and then relaxing the hand for up to twenty seconds. This procedure is repeated at least once. If an area remains tense, one can repeat tensing up to five times.

 Directions are given to focus on the sensation of relaxation that result from the release of the tension and how this feeling differs from the feeling of tension. Careful examination of this change in tension is important. The subject then progresses to the next area in the body, such as the arms, the face, the torso, the shoulders, etc. Progressive relaxation usually requires a facilitator or a taped recording of the process.

Positive Effects of Progressive Relaxation

Progressive relaxation effectively turns off the stress response. As a result, many of the adverse physical, mental and emotional conditions associated with chronic stress have been found to be reduced or eliminated with regular practice of PMR. It has been shown to be helpful in dealing with insomnia, post traumatic stress disorder, and increasing feelings of relaxation. One study showed that those who practiced progressive relaxation experienced a decreased heart rate, decreased anxiety levels, decreased perceived stress, and a significant decrease in salivary cortisol (indicating a physiological decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity) compared to control subjects. The subjects of this study also self-reported increased levels of relaxation.

Long and Haney found progressive relaxation to be as effective as aerobic activity in decreasing anxiety and increasing self-efficacy among working women. Progressive relaxation has been found, in additional controlled studies, to be effective in reducing the effects of other maladies that are stress related including reducing headaches, depression, aversion to chemotherapy, low back pain, depression, and hypertension.    

Passive Progressive Relaxation

Another form of progressive relaxation was introduced as an effective way of relaxing the body by Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Kabat-Zinn created a more passive way of progressing through the various parts of the body and named it the body scan. Working with patients who struggle with all types of diseases and disorders, Kabat-Zinn introduced this form of relaxation/meditation as the first method for patients to use in order to discover their bodies in a non-judgmental way and begin to find some relief from their stress related symptoms.

While lying down, the patient is guided to put his attention on a specific area of the body and simply tune in to what is happening in that part of the body. Kabat-Zinn then has the patient progress to another area of the body. Patients are instructed to remain as passive and non-judgmental as possible, while at the same time, maintaining a detached process of careful observation of body parts, both deep inside and on the surface level.

Kabat-Zinn suggests that when practicing the body scan, a person should also become very aware of thoughts which may spontaneously arise while focusing on a specific area of the body. As thoughts come to the surface, they are noted, but not added to, nor are judgments made about those thoughts. For example, if a person were doing the body scan and her attention was on her knee, a thought might arise about how the knee was struck while snow skiing. These thoughts are simply observed, but not added to or negatively judged. The person would try to avoid adding additional thoughts about being depressed because she can’t ski anymore or what other people think of her because she can’t spend time with them on the slopes.

Detached observation may seem difficult at first, but according to Kabat-Zinn, passively progressing through the body in this way is profoundly beneficial. By allowing the breath and the awareness to move through the areas of the body, he feels that the body is left in a state of wholeness, balance and integrity. Kabat-Zinn describes the ideal attitude that one should maintain while practicing this passively progressive type of meditation. His words apply equally to any of the relaxation techniques found in this textbook:

In its truest expression meditation goes beyond notions of success and failure, and this is why it is such a powerful vehicle for growth and change and healing. This does not mean that you cannot progress in your meditation practice, nor does it mean that it is impossible to make mistakes that will reduce its value to you. A particular kind of effort is necessary in the practice of meditation, but it is not an effort of striving to achieve some special state, whether it be relaxation, freedom from pain, healing, or insight. These come naturally with practice because they are already inherent in the present moment and in every moment. Therefore any moment is as good as any other for experiencing their presence within yourself. If you see things in this light, it makes perfect sense to take each moment as it comes and accept it as it is, seeing it clearly in its fullness, and letting it go.


Observing, without judgment, directs healing energy to the area being observed. This concept does not immediately make sense to us because we think we aren’t accomplishing anything by simply observing. But this is something you can test on your own. Kabat-Zinn explains, “Each time you scan your body in this way, you can think of it or visualize it as a purification or detoxification process, a process that is promoting healing by restoring a feeling f wholeness and integrity to your body.”


Student Experiences with Progressive Relaxation

I loved doing this relaxation exercise. Once again I had my friend do this one with me, and afterwards he couldn't quit saying to me just how great that he felt. I could do nothing but agree. I never really thought that tensing your muscles and then releasing them would make them so relaxed. It was just a normal day like any other when I decided to do this exercise so I wasn't really tense, but I could always use a little relaxation. During the whole thing I was just getting more and more relaxed. I really enjoyed this exercise and it put me in a good mood to just release that tension in my muscles. I think that this is one of the relaxation techniques that could be used any time or any place. I felt good afterwards and believe it or not but this one didn't put me to sleep. Shantelle T.


The progressive exercise was different and really interesting. It was so helpful for me to see the differences between tension and relaxation. I know my body is tense a lot and my muscles are always sore from football. But I never really take the time to feel what it is doing to my body and to feel the immediate difference between tension and relaxation. When I would tense up my hands into a fist, my hands and arms were so tight and as soon as I breathed out and released all of the tension, I felt overwhelming relaxation. I really noticed a difference in my face and neck as well. My neck is always tense and my face, especially my eyes and jaw muscles are constantly strained. When I would allow the relaxation to take over my body, I loved the feeling of heaviness in my muscles and the calm and peaceful feeling I had. This was a really good exercise. Tyler G.


My experience while doing the progressive relaxation was very nice. I did it once after work and once before bed. I found it to be most relaxing after work because I get tense while I am working. Obviously I was feeling very tense and tight when I started it after work. As I began the exercise the first muscle we tensed was the hands and fore arms. After I did that it was like that part of my body was gone, sunk into the carpet. As I continued to do each muscle they seemed to disappear and after I had done every muscle it felt like was sunk down into a giant pillow. The comparison of contracting and releasing makes your body seem so light. I felt totally relaxed and there was no tension whatsoever in my muscles. My favorite muscle group to do was my thigh area. After it was completed I felt completely released of the tension I had gathered through out the day. When I did it before bed it made it very easy for me to fall right asleep. Every time I have done any of these (relaxation) exercises it has made it easier for me to fall asleep. I usually have a hard time falling asleep because I have so much on my mind. Carli S.


This was a very nice and relaxing exercise for me. I usually have tight muscles because of the work I am involved in doing daily. I use my muscles a lot. Before the video started I was tight from lifting weights. I really noticed a big deal of relaxation on my forearms and hands. They seemed to benefit the most. The other part that I enjoyed was the leg and buttocks relaxation part. That felt really good. When I did this exercise before I went to sleep I noticed that it was easier to find a comfortable position to sleep in. I usually have a difficult time doing this. Doing this exercise also helped me fall asleep fast and easily. I plan on using this exercise more often because it seems to help my body out a ton. Eric W.


Before I did the exercise the first time I was a little tense in my neck and feet. During the exercise it was amazing to feel the sensation. I felt totally relaxed and calm. Immediately after the exercise I felt like I had a long nap and an hour after the exercise no parts of my body felt tense, I felt refreshed and renewed. Before I did the exercise before I went to sleep, I wasn't very tired, but I was tense all over. The exercise again made me feel very calm and I almost went to sleep before I finished the exercise. I slept like a rock the whole night, and woke up rejuvenated. Brittany H



– Sometimes it's important to work for that pot of gold. But other times it's essential to take time off and to make sure that your most important decision in the day simply consists of choosing which color to slide down on the rainbow. - Douglas Pagels