Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Between work, financial obligations, relationships, health and other issues, it’s a common condition. But if too much chronic stress builds up, and you don’t have a healthy outlet for dealing with it, stress can seriously impact your health and happiness.
Exercise is a proven method for reducing stress and anxiety. But if you’ve only got a few minutes of free time, it can be difficult to hit the gym or go for a run. That’s where disciplines like meditation and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) come into play. Both can be done almost anywhere — at home, in your office — and can go a long way toward relieving tension, both mentally and physically.
According to the University of Michigan, progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing a group of muscles as you breathe in and then relaxing those same muscles as you breathe out. For the most benefit, you focus on muscle groups in a certain order, checking each one off before moving on to the next.
Progressive muscle relaxation has been shown to reduce test anxiety among students, and it even has applications for cancer patients — one study showed its effectiveness in reducing anxiety, pain, nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. So, it’s likely PMR can work for you, too.
YOUR FIVE-STEP GUIDE TO PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION
Before getting started, you’ll need to set aside some time for yourself. Even just 10–15 minutes can be enough to make a difference. Whether it’s your lunch break or right before bed, choose a time that works for you, and stick to it. If possible, it can be extra helpful to do some PMR before an event that typically causes you anxiety, like a job interview, athletic performance or stressful meeting.
FIND A DISTRACTION-FREE SPACE AND GET COMFORTABLE
This part is key. A quiet spot free from distractions and interruptions lets you focus on what’s to come. Yes, that means no cell phones. Try lying down in a dark room, whether on a bed or the floor. This allows you to stretch out and relax.
TRY AN AUDIO RECORDING
Guided audio recordings can be especially helpful for anyone new to progressive muscle relaxation. Such prompts guide you through an ordered PMR series, going from muscle group to muscle group, so all you have to do is listen and follow directions. If you’d rather go it alone, that’s fine, too. In that case, just start at one end of your body and work toward the other, muscle by muscle. This script can help.
BREATHE IN AND TENSE YOUR MUSCLES
Take a deep breath and tense the muscle group you’re focusing on for 5–10 seconds. It shouldn’t hurt or feel uncomfortable, but you should notice the isolation of the particular muscle.
EXHALE AND RELEASE THE TENSION
Now, breathe out and release the tension. You should feel a sense of relief and relaxation as the tension melts away. Rest for a few seconds before moving on to the next muscle group.
WORK YOUR WAY DOWN YOUR BODY
You can start at your head or your feet, whichever you prefer. If you begin at your head, start by tensing and then relaxing your forehead by raising and furrowing your eyebrows. Move to your jaw and your neck. Work down through your shoulders, chest, arms and legs before finally ending with your toes.
When you’re finished, you’ll have tensed and relaxed every muscle group in your body, all while breathing deeply and focusing on the present. Ideally you will feel less stressed and ready to take on whatever comes next. With a little practice, you may even be able to perform shortened versions of PMR at your desk, in the car or whenever you could use a little calm in your day.