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Progressive Muscle Relaxation

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Updated June 02, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a mind-body technique that involves slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in the body. Typically used to tame stress, progressive muscle relaxation is said to increase your awareness of the sensations associated with tension (and, in turn, help you identify and deal with the physical effects of everyday stress). Indeed, a number of studies show that regular practice of progressive muscle relaxation may help keep your stress in check (as well as treat stress-related health problems like insomnia and anxiety).

How to Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is best practiced in a comfortable position and in a quiet space free of distractions. To start, tighten the muscles in your face for five seconds by squeezing your eyes shut, wrinkling your forehead, and clenching your jaw. Next, relax your face and breathe deeply as you feel the tension release from your muscles. Moving through the rest of your body (including your hands, arms, shoulders, back, stomach, buttocks, thighs, and feet), repeat the tension-relaxation sequence for each muscle group (one muscle group at a time). If any muscles still feel tense at the end of your progressive muscle relaxation session, tighten and relax that muscle group at least three more times.

Benefits of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Several studies show that progressive muscle relaxation may help lessen stress. In a 2000 study from the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, for example, researchers exposed 67 volunteers to a stressful situation and then had them practice progressive muscle relaxation, undergo music therapy, or take part in a control group. Results revealed that members of progressive muscle relaxation group experienced greater relaxation (including a more significant decrease in heart rate) than the rest of the study members. Other research indicates that progressive muscle relaxation may also help soothe stress by reducing levels of cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress).

In addition, a number of studies suggest that progressive muscle relaxation may benefit people with certain health problems. For instance, a 2003 study from the journal Psychooncology found that progressive muscle relaxation helped relieve anxiety and improve quality of life among 29 colorectal cancer patients who had recently received surgery. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, meanwhile, showed that progressive muscle relaxation improved quality of life and reduced blood pressure among people with heart disease.

Should You Use Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Health Purposes?

While progressive muscle relaxation may help alleviate your stress, it should not be used as a substitute for standard medical care in treatment of any health problem. If you're interested in using progressive muscle relaxation to help manage a specific health condition, talk to your doctor about incorporating it into your self-care.

Sources:

American Medical Student Association. "Progressive Muscle Relaxation". Last accessed February 2011.

Cheung YL, Molassiotis A, Chang AM. "The effect of progressive muscle relaxation training on anxiety and quality of life after stoma surgery in colorectal cancer patients." Psychooncology. 2003 Apr-May;12(3):254-66.

Hui PN, Wan M, Chan WK, Yung PM. "An evaluation of two behavioral rehabilitation programs, qigong versus progressive relaxation, in improving the quality of life in cardiac patients." J Altern Complement Med. 2006 May;12(4):373-8.

Pawlow LA, Jones GE. "The impact of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation on salivary cortisol." Biol Psychol. 2002;60(1):1-16.

Pawlow LA, Jones GE. "The impact of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation on salivary cortisol and salivary immunoglobulin A (sIgA)." Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2005 Dec;30(4):375-87.

Scheufele PM. "Effects of progressive relaxation and classical music on measurements of attention, relaxation, and stress responses." J Behav Med. 2000 Apr;23(2):207-28.

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