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Relaxation Part 3: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Previously, I discussed why it’s important to purposefully relax and I discussed one method of relaxation, deep breathing. One thing I neglected to mention is that practicing relaxation techniques is helpful for more than anxiety and stress. It can also be an important component in addressing chronic pain. Oftentimes chronic pain patients find significant relief through intentional relaxation techniques such as the deep breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing) and progressive muscle relaxation. This is because when we are in pain, we often tense muscles without even being aware of it. The tensed muscles can lead to additional pain, depending on the issue involved. Muscle tension is one cause of headaches, as well. Taking a minute or two here and there throughout the day to utilize one of the relaxation techniques can help prevent or minimize some kinds of pain.

Progressive muscle relaxation can be done in several ways but generally it goes from head to toes. You can, of course, go toe to head, as well, if you prefer. Going from head to toe, you can also imagine and visualize the relaxation pouring down your body, starting with your scalp. The visualization works better head to toe since we’re all familiar with gravity’s effects and it just makes sense for something on our head to move downward.

In a nutshell, progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing a group of muscles for 5 to 10 seconds and then relaxing them. The contrast between the tensed muscles and the relaxed muscles can be pretty striking. You may want to repeat the sequence of tensing and relaxing that same group of muscles up to 3 times. Then you move to the next set of muscles and tense/release two or three times. By the time you have worked your entire body, you will likely notice a real feeling of relaxation in your muscles. For a real power play, follow the progressive muscle relaxation with some deep breathing!

It can take some time to do progressive muscle relaxation—but it doesn’t have to. I’ve heard some therapists say if teaching this technique doesn’t take up the entire session, it hasn’t been done right. Well, I don’t know too many people who are going to devote that much time on a regular basis to using this technique. I believe if we can minimize the time requirement, then we can remove one potential roadblock from people using and benefiting from this practice. So, I do recommend starting with smaller muscle groups when you are first trying this technique. That will require more time initially. But as you get practice you can do more muscle groups at a time. In fact, you can try to tense every muscle at once if you are pressed for time. So this is a technique that can be done at your desk or in a waiting room or at your kid’s soccer practice. (Okay, so you might not want to do the face-scrunching part in public, I’ll grant you that!)

It’s easier to get started if you have a guide or spoken directions. Here is a video that I really like and which clients have liked. It’s aimed at children so it’s a bit fanciful and playful, but that’s one thing I like about it. I recommend giving this video a try sometime when you’ve got about 15 minutes and want to get a good walk-through with progressive muscle relaxation. I will note that this video walk-through doesn’t do the top-down approach but I bet you’ll still feel a great effect.

This is also a nice walk-through of progressive muscle-relaxation. It’s about 15 minutes long.

Here’s a 6-minute walk-through of progressive muscle relaxation.

It’s important to note that if you have chronic pain in a particular body part or a particular area which is sore or injured, or if it hurts when you attempt to tense a body part, you should not continue with progressive muscle relaxation at least with the part of your body that hurts.

If you have an issue you’d like to talk over with a caring therapist, I invite you to give me a call at (816) 226-4678 and make an appointment. I have offices in Overland Park, KS and Belton, MO and I also provide online counseling through HIPAA-compliant videoconferencing.

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