Tips on living a healthy and full life

Progressive muscle relaxation

It’s of great benefit to know how to relax and release any built-up tension we may have. Do you know how to teach your body to relax…to chill out?

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) exercise is a technique developed over 75 years ago by Dr. Edmund Jacobson and is found to be effective in achieving a deep state of relaxation.  Many of us find it relaxing to watch TV or a movie, or enjoy a sudsy bath. The difference between these kinds of activities and deep relaxation is a distinct physiological state known as “the relaxation response.”  

In addition to effectively releasing stress from the body and mind, this progressive muscle relaxation exercise, when practiced regularly, reduces anxiety and has a host of health benefits, including lower blood pressure.

How does PMR work?

Progressive muscle relaxation exercise involves continuous tensing and relaxing of individual muscles or muscle groups. When you practice tightening and releasing a muscle, you’ll notice the difference between tense and relaxed. You may be thinking that you already notice the difference and perhaps this is so. When caregiving however, many of us may be unaware of our general responses to chronic daily stress, and are more likely to be in a perpetual state of tension, mistaking this for normal. Many caregivers regularly experience tension headaches, tight shoulders, and/or a sore neck.

A progressive muscle relaxation exercise has two goals:

  1. To shift your perpetual state of tension to one of relaxation
  2. AND to be a “first aid” exercise to promote relaxation

DO NOT continue the PMR exercise if it causes pain. If you feel discomfort, ease up or stop completely as you do not want to cause muscle cramping or a body injury. You are responsible for knowing your own body’s limits.

How often should I do the PMR exercise?

To experience long-term benefits, it is recommended that you practice progressive muscle relaxation at least 20 minutes per day, and two 20-minute periods are preferred. If this is not an option, you can perform “first aid” progressive muscle relaxation to target the areas that carry tension, such as the neck, shoulders, and back.

Simply follow the progressive muscle relaxation instructions provided below, and apply the relaxation to these particular muscles rather than the whole body as needed.

Progressive muscle relaxation exercise (with audio)

You can either read the instructions below to do the exercise at your own pace or be guided in this video.

PMR overview

This exercise is best practiced on an empty stomach. Otherwise, the body is trying to digest food, which will disrupt relaxation.

Duration – Allow yourself 20 minutes of uninterrupted time in a quiet space.

Clothing – Wear comfortable clothing, loosen any belts or restrictive clothing and take off your shoes.

Position – Make yourself comfortable, either sitting or lying down. You are likely to find it easier to do this PMR exercise sitting down.

Focus – Silently tell yourself that you are going to focus on your muscles and muscle groups. When your attention wanders, and it will, gently bring it to back to the particular muscle or muscle group you are working on.

Tension & Release – Note that this exercise involves systematically tensing a muscle or muscle group, holding that tension for about 10 seconds before releasing, and relaxing for 15-20 seconds. Try to be aware of how the tension and relaxation of each muscle feels. The PMR exercise is progressive:

  • Start with the hands and arms
  • Go to the shoulders, neck, back, and face
  • Finish with the chest, stomach, legs, and feet

PMR instructions

Now, while seated and quiet, close your eyes and let us begin.


  • First, take note of your breathing. You need not change it. You are simply noticing your inhalation and exhalation.  Do this for a few breaths.
  • Now, take a deep breath from your abdomen, hold for a count of 5 and exhale slowly, letting any tension go.
  • Repeat this breathing exercise three times. Take a deep breath into your abdomen, hold for a count of five and exhale slowly, letting go of any tension.

Start with the muscles of your hands and arms

  • Clench your fists. Feel the tension. Hold this tension for 10 seconds. Just hold it and notice how it feels.
  • Release your hands and let them go limp. Take 15-20 seconds to feel the tension flowing from your hands and notice how this feels.
  • Flex your bicep muscles. Feel the tension build up. You may even want to visualize the biceps tightening. Hold for 10 seconds and observe how that feels.
  • Now let that tension in your biceps go. You may want to say silently to yourself “I am letting this go.” How does it feel to let the tension go?
  • Tighten your triceps muscles by extending your arms out and locking your elbows. Again, you may want to visualize the triceps tightening.  Notice how that tension feels and hold it for 10 seconds.
  • Next, take 15-20 seconds to release your triceps muscles. Feel yourself letting the tension go and observe how it feels to let go.

Move on to the muscles of your shoulders, back, neck and face

  • Lift your shoulders up to your ears, feeling that tension build for 10 seconds. Notice how that tension feels.
  • Release your shoulders and observe how that feels for 15-20 seconds, and stay in this feeling.
  • Now, pull your shoulders back, trying to make your shoulder blades touch. Be aware of how this tension feels as you hold for 10 seconds.
  • Release your shoulders for a count of 15-20 seconds and be aware of how it feels.
  • Now scrunch up your entire face. Squeeze your forehead down. Clench your eyelids tightly shut and tighten your lips. Notice how this tension feels as you hold for 10 seconds.
  • Let your face rest by taking 20 seconds to observe the feeling before you release the tension.
  • Tighten your jaw by opening your mouth as wide as possible for 10 seconds, being aware of how your jaw and mouth feel.
  • Notice the feeling as you relax your jaw and mouth for a count of 15-20 seconds.
  • Now, very gently, pull your head back as if to look at the ceiling. Hold this tension for 10 seconds and notice how the back of your neck feels.
  • Relax your head and neck for 15-20 seconds. Notice how it feels.
  • Gently and slowly move your chin toward your chest. Feel that tension building for 10 seconds, noticing how that feels.
  • When you let go, take 10-25 seconds to pay attention to what the release of tension feels like.

Finish with the muscles of your stomach, chest, legs and feet

  • Tighten the muscles in your stomach and chest by sucking in for 10 seconds, noticing how that feels.
  • Release the muscles and relax for 15-20 seconds, being mindful of how they feel.
  • Now squeeze your buttocks muscles as if you were getting ready to get up from your chair. Feel that tension for 10 seconds before letting those muscles go. Notice what that tension feels like.
  • Take 15-20 seconds to feel the release of tension in those muscles, and note how it feels.
  • Squeeze your thigh muscles by pressing your knees together. Hold for 10 seconds to feel the tension.  
  • Notice the relaxed feeling when you release the thigh muscles for a count of 15-20 seconds.
  • Next, contract your calf muscles by pulling your toes toward you. Hold that tension for 10 seconds, and notice how it feels.
  • Let go, and, after 15-20 seconds, curl your toes downward. After 10 seconds, let that tension go and observe how it feels for 15-20 seconds.  
  • Finally, imagine a wave of relaxation spreading through your entire body. Start from your head and go right down to your toes. Let that wave fill you up. Just be with this state of relaxation.

You’ve now completed the progressive muscle relaxation exercise for your whole body. Do you feel any different now from when you first started?

If you still find areas of tension in your body you can repeat the tense and release PMR exercise for that area.

Have you ever tried PMR? What has been your experience?

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  • Blair
    Sun Dec 29 2019, 06:44
    Thank you so much. Finally, I have found the detailed instructions I needed to start doing p. m. r.. Thanks, again. Blair.