Don’t you hate it when someone tells you to “Just relax”? As if it’s that simple. If we could all relax at a moment’s notice, we’d all be chilling, all of the time. But the reality is that we live in a world of stressors. Something is always demanding our focus or causing us worry. We can even feel threatened or in danger at certain times. Our body has a natural reaction to everything we face and overcome each day, and that reaction is to tense up. It doesn’t feel good. You know when your body is in that place. If your typical reaction is to just wait as long as it takes to release that tension (or down some wine to do it faster), you don’t have to keep living like that.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a breathing/meditative exercise that enables you to relax every muscle in your body in just about 10 to 20 minutes. (But don’t let people who tell you to “just relax” know that – they aren’t the boss of you). This technique is for you to use any time your body feels tense. The mind responds to the body, and vice versa, so when a stressful event causes your body to tense up, that tension reiterates to your mind that something is wrong, and the cycle persists. PMR can help you break that cycle.
How Progressive Muscle Relaxation Works
You have two nervous systems: your sympathetic nervous system and your parasympathetic one. PMR works to shift you from the former to the latter.
Your sympathetic nervous system is also known as fight-or-flight mode. It’s a network of nerves that responds in times of stress, when you’re exercising and when you feel unsafe. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, you’ll feel your heart racing and your muscles tensing.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is also known as your rest and digest system. It kicks in after stressful events, and when you’re digesting and sleeping (hence the name) to calm you down. In this mode, you’ll notice your heartbeat slowing, your blood pressure dropping and your breathing slowing.
The idea behind PMR is to use a breathing technique, combined with purposefully clenching and then relaxing each muscle group, to deactivate your sympathetic nervous system and to activate your parasympathetic one.