As you go through your day, like the bad-ass you are, you often start to hold tension in your body without even realizing it.
This is a normal reaction to stress stimuli, also known as the fight-or-flight response. This response evolved as a way to help animals survive a threat, typically by either facing the threat head-on, or by running away.
Some common symptoms of the fight-or-flight reaction are accelerated heart rate, sweating, shaking, and shortness of breath. These are the result of the influx of stress hormones. Over time, this fight-or-flight response has become a common reaction to feelings of fear that we experience with reality. Some people can get locked into this fight-or-flight mode for 90% of their day.
The good news is, an exercise called Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a quick and easy way to combat these symptoms.
What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?
Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is a deep relaxation technique that is used to reduce symptoms of anxiety, stress, insomnia, and even certain types of chronic pains. PMR is based upon the simple technique of tensing, or tightening, one muscle group at a time followed by a relaxation phase with release of the tension.
The technique of PMR dates back to the 1930’s by Edmund Jacobson, and is based upon his assertion that mental calmness is a natural result of physical relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation is an exercise that anyone can use and only takes about about 15 minutes to complete. The best part is that it can have you feeling more relaxed almost instantaneously.
“Learn to relax. Your body is precious, as it houses your mind and spirit. Inner peace begins with a relaxed body.” –Norman Vincent Peale
How Do I Do It?
Step One: Applying Tension
The first step is to apply tension to a specific muscle group of the body. This can be your hand, for example. Begin by focusing on the target muscle group. Then, take a slow, deep breath and squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for 5 seconds, careful to avoid inducing pain. It is really important to focus on feeling the tension, making that mind-to-muscle connection. This may result in some discomfort or shaking, but as long as it’s not strong pain, this is normal. Make sure to isolate the muscle group as it is easy to accidentally tense surrounding muscles such as the arms or shoulder. This will get easier with practice.
Step Two: Releasing the Tension
After 5 seconds, as you exhale, allow the tightness to flow out of the tensed muscles. The muscles will become loose and limp as the tension leaves. The most important part is to make sure you are focusing on the difference in the feelings of tension and relaxation. This will better help you identify when you are holding onto tension in the future.
Step Three: Relaxation, Then Rinse and Repeat
Remain in the relaxed state for 15-20 seconds. Then, continue to work your way up your body, tightening and releasing with each muscle group. Legs, abdomen, buttocks, back, arms, shoulders, neck, and face. Try to tighten each muscle group for a few breaths and then slowly release. Repeat with any areas that feel especially stiff. The facial muscles are often times missed. While it is not recommended to grit your teeth, try forming a huge smile and hold for 5 seconds and then fully release all tension. After you have targeted all muscle groups, take some time to enjoy the deep state of relaxation.
Similar to Progressive muscle relaxation is the body scan. During a body scan you mentally “scan” all of your muscles, looking for areas of tension. When you discover an area that you are holding tension, you will then relax it, and continue this throughout your entire body until you reach a relaxed state. This is my go-to when I am especially stressed and a precursor to meditation.
Guide To Body Scanning:
With body scanning, you will begin by closing your eyes (optional but beneficial) and envisioning a scanner starting to move down your body, beginning at the top of your head. Scan your face, neck, shoulders, back, arms, hands, stomach, buttocks, legs, and feet. Ask yourself “Where am I holding tension? My face? My neck?”
When you discover an area that you are holding tension, gently move the muscle to loosen it, and then relax it. With the body scan, it is not necessary to fully tense the muscle before relaxing it.
Continue this with all muscle groups. Make sure to pay attention to specific areas such as your ears, nostrils, and your toes. These small places make a difference.
This can be performed anywhere whether it is on your lunch break, or on your drive to work (just keep your eyes open), or at night to help you fall asleep. People who suffer from insomnia report that practicing PMR at night helps them fall asleep.
Body scans and Progressive Muscle Relaxation are excellent tools to help learn about the body and the signals it may be telling you. You can learn to accurately identify and diminish the signs and signals of stress and tension in your body with time and practice. You can start ridding your body of tension right now!