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  • Natasha J. Thomas, MD

Quick Mental Wellness Tip: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Updated: May 12, 2021

Today's topic is something I absolutely can take no credit for, but is something I use with my patients very often. It's called Progressive Muscle Relaxation, a great technique to combat anxiety. Here's what you need to know.


Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A Definition

Progressive Muscle Relaxation, also known as PMR, is an exercise people use to help manage stress and anxiety. Characterized by the sequential contraction and relaxation of muscle groups, PMR leads to a sense of calm and well-being. This is a technique that I teach people who struggle with anxiety, manifested as overthinking, worry, panic attacks, and phobias. It works best when it is practiced regularly - not only in the midst of an anxiety flare-up. If you need a little refresher on what exactly IS anxiety, read here or review "The Anxiety and Panic Series" from our August/September 2018 blogposts for causes, types and other solutions for anxiety.

The Technique

  • Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the ground/floor.*

  • Take a few deep breaths.

  • Curl your toes tightly and hold them in that position for 10 seconds.

  • Gently release the tension in your toes.

  • Notice the warm sense of relaxation.

  • Repeat as you work your way up your entire body, squeezing each muscle group tightly for 10 seconds, then releasing. Don't forget any muscle groups, including your facial muscles!

Keep in mind that novices should start in a seated position, but can move to doing PMR in bed or lying down, too.

The Benefits

When practiced regularly, PMR can be a very handy tool to use when feeling overwhelmed or stressed. Many people "carry" stress in certain parts of the body. For instance, I carry stress in my upper shoulders and jaw. Did you know that at rest, your molars shouldn't be touching each other? If they are, you're clenching your jaw and it may because of tension or anxiety.

PMR calls your attention to those areas that are overly burdened with stress. Some people develop headaches, tightness in the throat, chest pressure, upset stomach, or find that they fidget with their hands when unconsciously trying to work through anxiety. PMR is a good regular practice for checking in with your body (and seeing what it's telling you about the thoughts in and on your mind).

Besides, you can really do PMR anywhere and until you get to the facial muscles, hardly anyone will notice! Have fun with it, it really is a great exercise. Try it after a warm bath or shower for added effect. Try it before bed for improved sleep. Other great times to use it are:

  • Before a big meeting or interview

  • If getting frustrated in bad traffic

  • If you're having a stressful phone conversation

  • When you feel the first pings of anxiety or panic (but don't hold your breath!)

Try it out and let us know in the comments how it worked for you!


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