Guided progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is an exercise that relaxes your mind and body by progressively tensing and relaxing muscle groups. I often recommend this exercise to clients because it can help get distance from negative thoughts, locate the source of body-based emotional tension, aid sleep preparation, and tangibly relax breathing and stressed muscles (references below). Regularly practicing PMR strengthens the mind-body connection in a way that nicely complements the affective work that occurs in therapy. Below I’ve written out a guide that you can use to take yourself through this exercise; at the bottom of this article I’ll include some videos and other helpful resources.

It’s important to note that this exercise may not be appropriate if you are coping with chronic pain. In this case, please reach out for alternative mindfulness exercises.

Guidelines

This exercise will take about 15 minutes, and you will need to find a space where you will be undisturbed throughout. You will tense each muscle group vigorously, but without straining, and then suddenly release the tension and feel the muscle relax. You will tense each muscle for about 5 seconds. If you have any pain or discomfort at any of the targeted muscle groups feel free to omit that step. Throughout this exercise you may visualize the muscles tensing and a wave of relaxation flowing over them as you release that tension. It is important that you keep breathing throughout the exercise. 

The exercise

Begin by finding a comfortable position either sitting or lying down in a location where you will not be interrupted. Allow your attention to focus only on your body. If you begin to notice your mind wandering, bring it back to the muscle you are working on.

Take a deep breath through your abdomen, hold for a few seconds, and exhale slowly. Again, as you breathe notice your stomach rising and your lungs filling with air. As you exhale, imagine the tension in your body being released and flowing out of your body. Repeat this until you feel your body begin to sink into the chair or bed, and ensure you continue this breathing throughout the exercise.

Move through the following muscles, tensing each for about five seconds. After five seconds, abruptly release. Pause for about 10 seconds, noting any difference in that muscle area, and in your overall relaxation:

  • Curl your toes under, tensing your feet

  • Now flex your feet, pulling your toes towards you and feeling the tension in your calves

  • Tighten your thighs by pressing your knees together, as if you were holding a penny between them

  • Tighten your buttocks

  • Gently arch your lower back

  • Now, tighten the muscles in your stomach by sucking in. Press your bellybutton to your spine

  • Tighten your chest by taking a deep breath in, hold for about 5 seconds, and exhale, blowing out all the tension

  • Tense your upper back by pulling your shoulders back, trying to make your shoulder blades touch

  • Lift your shoulders up, as if they could touch your ears

  • Tighten your triceps by extending your arms out and locking your elbows

  • Now, flex your biceps

  • Make a “stop” motion with your hands to stretch your forearm away from you

  • Clench your fists

  • Gently pull your head back as if to look at the ceiling

  • Now smile widely, feeling your mouth and cheeks tense

  • Next, tighten your eye muscles by squinting your eyelids tightly shut

  • Tighten the muscles in your forehead by raising your eyebrows as high as you can

Now, imagine a wave of relaxation slowly spreading through your body beginning at your head and going all the way down to your feet. Feel the weight of your relaxed body. Note any changes between how you feel now, and how you felt before the exercise. What messages did you find in your body through this exercise? You may wish to repeat the scan again. Continue to breathe deeply until you are ready move on.

Videos

This is a very simple exercise, and you will quickly come to a place where you can conduct the progressive body scan and relaxation without a script to follow. That said, sometimes it’s nice to have someone conducting the exercise for you:

Guided PMR video (15 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86HUcX8ZtAk

Guided PMR video (short - 6 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nZEdqcGVzo

References

Anxiety Canada: https://www.anxietycanada.com/sites/default/files/MuscleRelaxation.pdf

BC government’s HealthLink BC: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/ta4146

Feldman, G., Greeson, J., & Senville, J. (2010). Differential effects of mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and loving-kindness meditation on decentering and negative reactions to repetitive thoughts. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48(10), 1002-1011. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2010.06.006 

McCallie, M. S., Blum, C. M., & Hood, C. J. (2006). Progressive muscle relaxation. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 13(3), 51-66. doi:10.1300/J137v13n03_04

Amanda Thiessen