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It’s normal to feel stressed sometimes. But if your stress builds up, or it continues for a period of time, you might carry the tension in your muscles. You could have muscle tightness without even realizing it.

One way to relieve muscle tension is to do progressive muscle relaxation, also known as Jacobson’s relaxation technique. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a form of therapy that involves tightening and relaxing your muscle groups, one at a time, in a specific pattern.

The goal is to release tension from your muscles, while helping you recognize what that tension feels like.

When practiced regularly, this technique may help you manage the physical effects of stress. Research has also found that it has therapeutic benefits for conditions like:

  • high blood pressure
  • migraines
  • sleep issues

Let’s get into what PMR is, what the benefits are, and how to do this technique.

PMR was created by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s. It was based on the theory that physical relaxation can promote mental relaxation.

Jacobson found that you can relax a muscle by tensing and then releasing it. He also discovered that doing so can relax the mind.

PMR provides a framework for achieving this state of relaxation. It requires you to work on one muscle group at a time. This allows you to notice the tension in that specific area.

It’s also essential to tense each muscle group before relaxing. This action emphasizes the sense of relaxation in the area.

There’s plenty of evidence behind the health benefits of PMR. Let’s take a closer look at what research has discovered about the benefits of this technique.

Reduces anxiety and tension

Anxiety relief is one of the major benefits of PMR. This includes generalized anxiety disorder or anxiety due to a stressful situation.

A 2019 study of 50 unemployed individuals found that PMR reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. At the same time, it improved feelings of well-being and quality of life.

In another 2019 study, it was determined that PMR had the ability to relieve tension and anxiety in dental patients. The researchers determined that PMR also helped reduce depressive symptoms in these patients.

A larger study done in 2016 determined that PMR was as effective as acupuncture treatment in helping to decrease feelings of tension, anxiety, and anger.

Also, a 2020 study found that PMR may help reduce anxiety in people with COVID-19, suggesting benefits for coping with difficult situations.

Improves sleep

Because PMR induces relaxation, it may also help you get better sleep.

In a 2020 study, researchers tested PMR on 80 burn patients. These patients often experience high anxiety and poor sleep quality due to their physical and psychological conditions.

The patients were divided into two groups. One group did PMR for 20 to 30 minutes a day, 3 days in a row. The other group just received routine care and treatment.

After 3 days, the researchers determined that the patients who did PMR showed a significant decrease in anxiety and an improvement in sleep quality compared to the group who only received routine care.

Additionally, in a 2015 study, PMR helped mothers with premature babies sleep better during the postpartum period.

Eases neck pain

If you tend to carry tension in your neck or shoulders, you might experience neck pain. It’s a common condition that’s often associated with mental and emotional stress.

According to a 2013 study, PMR may help reduce symptoms of chronic nonspecific neck pain. In doing so, it may also improve quality of life and physical function.

Reduces low back pain

Low back pain is another common condition. It has many potential causes, but stress can make it worse.

A 2018 study found that 8 weeks of PMR may help decrease chronic low back pain.

Another 2014 study discovered that PMR, accompanied by music, has the ability to decrease low back pain in pregnant women.

Improves systolic blood pressure

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, increases your risk for heart disease and stroke. Stress can worsen the condition, but PMR may help.

In a 2019 study, PMR with music therapy improved systolic blood pressure in older adults.

A study done in 2018, which used PMR by itself, also found that it had the ability to significantly improve systolic blood pressure in adults with high blood pressure.

In both studies, however, it didn’t seem to have an effect on diastolic blood pressure.

Decreases the frequency of migraine attacks

Migraine is a neurological condition that causes intense pain in your face and head. Migraine attacks can be triggered by stress, including normal everyday stressors.

According to a 2016 study, PMR can decrease the frequency of migraine episodes. The researchers believe it helps by balancing levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s often low in people with migraine.

Reduces temporomandibular joint (TMJ) symptoms

Emotional stress can cause temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, a condition that leads to stiffness and locking of the jaw.

A 2019 study found that the calming effect of PMR may help reduce TMJ symptoms. The study’s participants experienced less intense pain and tension after practicing the technique.

PMR is an easy technique to do at home. You don’t need any special equipment or gear. All you need is focus, attention, and a quiet spot where you won’t be distracted.

The key with this technique is to tense each muscle group and hold for 5 seconds. Then, you exhale as you let your muscles fully relax for 10 to 20 seconds before you move on to the next muscle group.

How to do it

  1. Start by lying or sitting down. Relax your entire body. Take five deep, slow breaths.
  2. Lift your toes upward. Hold, then let go. Pull your toes downward. Hold, then let go.
  3. Next, tense your calf muscles, then let go.
  4. Move your knees toward each other. Hold, then let go.
  5. Squeeze your thigh muscles. Hold, then let go.
  6. Clench your hands. Pause, then let go.
  7. Tense your arms. Hold, then let go.
  8. Squeeze your buttocks. Pause, then let go.
  9. Contract your abdominal muscles. Pause, then let go.
  10. Inhale and tighten your chest. Hold, then exhale and let go.
  11. Raise your shoulders to your ears. Pause, then let go.
  12. Purse your lips together. Hold, then release.
  13. Open your mouth wide. Hold, then let go.
  14. Close your eyes tightly. Pause, then release.
  15. Lift your eyebrows. Hold, then release.
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If you’re new to relaxation techniques or PMR, consider these helpful tips:

  • Set aside 15 to 20 minutes for PMR. Do it in a quiet, comfortable area.
  • Turn off your phone to avoid distractions.
  • Avoid holding your breath, which can cause more tension. Inhale deeply when you tense your muscles and exhale fully when you relax.
  • Move in a sequence that works for you. For example, you can start at your head if you want to, and move down your body.
  • Wear loose, lightweight clothing.
  • Practice PMR even when you’re feeling calm, especially in the beginning. This will make it easier to learn the method.

It may help to listen to a PMR recording. This way, you can follow the steps without constantly thinking about the instructions.

Here’s where you can find guided audio recordings:

  • YouTube
  • wellness or meditation podcasts
  • mobile apps like Headspace

A mental health professional, such as a therapist, can also guide you through this relaxation technique.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a relaxation technique. It involves tensing and then relaxing your muscles, one by one. This helps you release physical tension, which may ease stress and anxiety.

Research has shown that PMR offers a range of benefits, including pain relief and better sleep. It may also reduce migraine attacks, systolic blood pressure, and TMJ symptoms.

You can do PMR in the comfort of your own home. Practice the technique regularly for best results. Over time, it may help you feel more relaxed and mentally calmer.