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2021

Have You Heard of this Relaxation Technique?

Have you heard of progressive muscle relaxation? Maybe you have heard of this very effective relaxation technique, but many have not. Even now, we often encounter some who have never heard of this active relaxation technique before. To change this, we offer courses to teach PMR people who want to improve their resilience. We believe you should learn about it too.

What is progressive muscle relaxation and why does it work?

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is an active relaxation technique that relaxes the muscles of the whole body by intentionally tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups. As a result the mind relaxes as well. When your body slowly and progressively relaxes the mind automatically follows. PMR was invented by the American internist Edmund Jacobsen, who observed that physical tension often stood in relation to stress and anxiety.

When Jacobsen first came up with PMR a single application could take several hours. It took so long, because even very small muscles had to be tensed and relaxed one by one. Since then PMR evolved so that a whole-body application takes from around 45 minutes to less than 5 minutes, depending on the version that is applied. Nevertheless the idea behind this relaxation technique has remained the same.

Why PMR is such a powerful tool?

Similar to when Jacobsen first started, one systematically tenses the different muscle groups to reach a relaxed state of the body and mind. There are several advantages to the technique which make it so valuable:

It is very easy to learn and effective, even on the first try. Many who struggle with falling asleep can use the technique to guide themselves back into slumber. In the beginning a full-body application takes longer because smaller muscle groups are tensed and relaxed in the process. The further a student progresses in learning to self-apply PMR, the faster each application is, while maintaining the same effectiveness.

Learn to use it whenever, wherever.

The number of situations during which PMR can be applied increases with further study. In the beginning we recommend that you lay down while being guided. Later, you learn to self-apply PMR while being seated as well. Finally, you can learn to apply PMR without having to actively flex a single muscle. This final version is based on your memory of how the exercise feels in your body.

Why do I need to relax my muscles when I experience mental stress?

You might ask yourself: “Why would first tensing and then relaxing specific muscle groups relax me? I am not always physically tense, my mind just feels really busy, even if my body is relaxed.”. That is a common concern. 

One answer to this is that our mind and body are connected. When we feel anxious about something, we automatically react physically. This is linked to the fight-or-flight response. This automatic response starts to prepare the body to either fight or flight in reaction to a dangerous situation. 

How your body reacts to stress.

As soon as we take note of a dangerous situation, our body prepares for action. Our breathing fastens and deepens, to take in more oxygen for the muscles. Our heart rate increases the oxygen flow to our muscles. We might start sweating to keep cool. All of this is great when we are facing an angry mammoth. 

These days however, we rarely encounter life-threatening situations, such as threats by wild animals. The natural response to stress has remained the same. Even if you are just nervous about your boss, your physical response to the situation is very much comparable to facing that angry mammoth.

Oh great, my stress response is prehistoric. And now?

Believe it or not, this is actually good news! If your response to stress is based on the connection of mind and body. Your relaxation response is as well. That means that you are able to relax the body and tell it “It’s OK, you don’t have to fight or run away”. After that, your mind will calm down too. This is how PMR can get your mind back into a relaxed state.

Research on PMR in clinical settings:

Clinically, it was studied for various populations. For example, a study found that PMR was an effective tool for migraine prophylaxis and even some positive changes in the brain connectivity noted over time (Meyer, Müller, Wöhlbier & Kropp, 2018).

In a study by Nickel et al. (2006) investigated the effects of PMR on bronchial asthma in pregnant women. They found that health related quality of life measures such as blood pressure, anger and lung measures were improved after 8 weeks of regular PMR application. Mohamad-Rodi et al. (2013) investigated the effects of a version of PMR on the health related quality of life for prostate cancer patients and also found promising outcomes in the 6-month trial.

Research on PMR in non-clinical settings:

That is not to say that PMR is only an effective tool for clinical populations. Various studies point towards beneficial effects of PMR for healthy individuals. For example, a study conducted by Chellew et al. (2015) found that first-year students at a Spanish university secreted up to 10% less of the stress hormone cortisol after application of a shortened version of PMR.

A different study on students found positive effects of PMR and animal assisted therapy on anxiety and stress levels (Abel & Brandi, 2019). Although another study focusing on stress induced eating behaviour did not find direct effects on stress related eating, they did find decreases in perceived stress and increased mindfulness after their 8-week trial (Tasmiah et al., 2020).

If PMR is so great, why haven’t I heard about it before?

Based on all of this previous research, you might wonder why you haven’t heard of PMR. The simple answer to this question is: We don’t really know. For a technique that has been around for such a long time, it is confusing that it isn’t more popular.

Here at 2 Kind Minds we certainly think it should be. Admittedly, laying in your bed and flexing different muscle groups, might not look as great as sitting on a nice meditation pillow or moving into an advanced yoga pose. PMR can be at least as effective, even without any previous experience.

If you enjoy yoga and, or meditation already, you might want to give progressive muscle relaxation a shot anyways. It is not our goal to only sell you only on PMR, it is our goal to help you in taking control of your stress levels in all kinds of situations. So having a wide variety of techniques and tools, can help you become a more resilient and balanced person in the long run. 

TL; DR – What are the major takeaways?

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation works to relax the mind and body by systematically tensing and then relaxing certain muscle groups of the body.
  • It is easy to learn and immediately effective and can be, once taught, applied independently.
  • It works, because our stress response now is based on the fight-or-flight response and demonstrates the mind-body connection.
  • PMR has been studied in many clinical settings and has been found effective for migraine, asthma and cancer patients.
  • PMR was also found effective for non-clinical populations such as students and stress eaters. 
  • We don’t really understand why PMR isn’t more popular, but want you to try it. It could be the technique that helps you to control your stress levels and stop you from reacting prehistorically.
  • Even if you already practice other relaxation techniques PMR could be a valuable tool to add to your collection.

References and additional sources

Chellew, K et al. “The Effect of Progressive Muscle Relaxation on Daily Cortisol Secretion.” Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands) 18.5 (2015): 538–544. Web.

Brandi H, and Regina Abel. “Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) Compared to Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) on Stress and Anxiety.” The American journal of occupational therapy 73.4_Supplement_1 (2019): 7311520391–. Web.

Isa, M R et al. “Impact of Applied Progressive Deep Muscle Relaxation Training on the Health Related Quality of Life Among Prostate Cancer Patients — A Quasi Experimental Trial.” Preventive medicine 57 (2013): S37–S40. Web.

Lauche, R., Materdey, S., Cramer, H., Haller, H., Stange, R., Dobos, G., & Rampp, T. (2013). Effectiveness of home-based cupping massage compared to progressive muscle relaxation in patients with chronic neck Pain—A randomized controlled trial. PLoS One, 8(6). 

Masih, T et al. “An 8‐Week Relaxation Program Consisting of Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Mindfulness Meditation to Reduce Stress and Attenuate Stress‐Driven Eating.” Applied psychology : health and well-being 12.1 (2020): 188–211. Web.

McCloughan, L et al. “Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), Sleep, and Recovery in Elite Performers.” Journal of science and medicine in sport 18 (2014): e113–e113. Web.

Merakou, K et al. “The Effect of Progressive Muscle Relaxation on Emotional Competence: Depression–Anxiety–Stress, Sense of Coherence, Health-Related Quality of Life, and Well-Being of Unemployed People in Greece: An Intervention Study.” Explore (New York, N.Y.) 15.1 (2019): 38–46. Web.

Meyer, B et al. “Progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobson for migraine prophylaxis : Clinical effectiveness and mode of action.” Schmerz (Berlin, Germany) 32.4 (2018): 250–258. Web.

Nickel, K et al. “Pregnant Women with Bronchial Asthma Benefit from Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A Randomized, Prospective, Controlled Trial.” Psychotherapy and psychosomatics 75.4 (2006): 237–243. Web.

Rajeswari, Singaravelu, and Nellepalli SanjeevaReddy. “Efficacy of Progressive Muscle Relaxation on Pregnancy Outcome Among Anxious Indian Primi Mothers.” Iranian Journal of nursing and midwifery research 25.1 (2020): 23–30. Web.

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Margaretha

Author : Margaretha

Chairwoman of Board at 2 Kind Minds Oy, MSc. Clinical Psychology, Relaxation Therapist, Progressive Muscle Relaxation Instructor, Student at University of Helsinki in Nutrition and Food related Behaviour, Bookworm and Dog Mom of Two

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