What is Jacobson's Relaxation Technique?

Jacobson’s relaxation technique, also known as progressive relaxation therapy, is a type of therapy that focuses on tightening and relaxing specific muscle groups in sequence. By concentrating on specific areas and tensing and then relaxing them, you can become more aware of your body and physical sensations.

Dr. Edmund Jacobson invented the technique in 1929 as a way to help his patients deal with anxiety. Jacobson felt that relaxing the muscles could relax the mind as well. General instructions for Jacobson’s technique involve tightening one muscle group while keeping the rest of the body relaxed, and then releasing the tension.

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Professionals who use this technique often combine it with breathing exercises or mental imagery. A guide may talk you through the process, starting at the head or feet and working through the body.

A Multitude of Possible Health Benefits

Practicing relaxation techniques can have a variety of health benefits. It can relieve anxiety, lower your blood pressure, reduce the likelihood of seizures, and improve your sleep.

Research shows a connection between relaxation and blood pressure, perhaps because stress is a contributing factor to high blood pressure. There is also some evidence that Jacobson’s relaxation technique can effectively help people with epilepsy reduce the amount and frequency of seizures.

Jacobson’s relaxation technique is commonly used to help people with insomnia as well. Several studies have looked at whether or not it’s effective. Some have had mixed results, while others show promise. In some cases people who didn’t get more sleep still felt better rested after relaxation therapy.

Whole-Body Technique

Joy Rains, author of Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Busy Mind recommends beginning the relaxation therapy with a breathing exercise and then moving from the feet up. She suggests the following exercises:

Feet

  1. Bring your attention to your feet.
  2. Point your feet downward, and curl your toes under.
  3. Tighten your toe muscles gently, but don’t strain.
  4. Notice the tension for a few moments, then release, and notice the relaxation. Repeat.
  5. Become aware of the difference between the muscles when they’re tensed and relaxed.
  6. Continue to tense and relax the leg muscles from the foot to the abdominal area.

Abdomen

  1. Gently tighten the muscles of your abdomen, but don’t strain.
  2. Notice the tension for a few moments. Then release, and notice the relaxation. Repeat.
  3. Become aware of the difference between the tensed muscles and the relaxed muscles.

Shoulders and Neck

  1. Very gently shrug your shoulders straight up towards your ears. Don’t strain.
  2. Feel the tension for a few moments, release, and then feel the relaxation. Repeat.
  3. Notice the difference between the tensed muscles and the relaxed muscles.
  4. Focus on the neck muscles, first tensing and then relaxing until you feel total relaxation in this area.

Localized Technique

You can also apply relaxation therapy to specific parts of the body. Nicole Spruill, CCC-SLP, is a speech specialist. She uses Jacobson’s relaxation technique to help professionals who sing or do a lot of public speaking prevent and recover from vocal cord strain.

Here is the three-step process Spruill recommends:

  1. Close your hands tightly to feel the tension. Hold for 5 seconds, and slowly allow the fingers to release one by one until they’re completely relaxed.
  2. Press your lips tightly together and hold for 5 seconds, feeling the tension. Slowly release. The lips should be completely relaxed and barely touching after the release.
  3. Finally, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth for 5 seconds, and notice the tension. Slowly relax the tongue until it’s sitting on the floor of the mouth and your jaws are slightly unclenched.

The Takeaway

Progressive relaxation therapy is generally safe and doesn’t require a professional’s guidance. You can practice the techniques at home using the instructions from a book or website, or you can buy a recording that takes you through the exercises.