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Just relax! Find out how with progressive muscle relaxation techniques

August 13, 2022 - 14 min read


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What is progressive muscle relaxation?

How does progressive muscle relaxation work?

How to do progressive muscle relaxation

7 benefits of progressive muscle relaxation

How can progressive muscle relaxation help with stress and insomnia?

How to do progressive muscle relaxation in the workplace

For the future: 5 other relaxation techniques

You woke up this morning and felt it right away. Tension starts in your neck and works its way down through your shoulders, and lower back, and somehow reaches to your calves. You recognize that it's from all the stress you've been carrying around.

Your muscles tense up as a reflex reaction to stress you experience because your body wants to protect you against possible injuries. But your tense muscles turn out to be the injury itself when left untreated, leading to tension headaches and other musculoskeletal pain.

Chronic pain and stress go hand in hand. When you experience stress, your body is flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol. While your body can handle cortisol, too much of it has been found to cause pain and inflammation in your systems.

Chronic stress may cause your body to think that you’re in danger all the time. But it’s time to find a solution. Progressive muscle relaxation techniques can soothe tense muscles and transport you to a state of deep relaxation. 

It's important to have stress management techniques for your physical and mental health. No one should live in pain due to acute tension in specific muscle groups.

Learning techniques that provide stress relief from physical impacts takes practice, but it immensely benefits your future health and well-being. It's a practice worth investing in.

What is progressive muscle relaxation?

Progressive muscle relaxation is a practice that helps reduce stress and anxiety by relaxing our muscle groups. Different types of stress negatively impact our physical health, decreasing our quality of life. Chronic stress disorders can even lead to or exacerbate chronic pain

The stress management technique allows people to feel relaxed after experiencing muscle tension in any area of the body. 

Progressive muscle relaxation techniques are convenient and effective at relieving stress, pain, and tension. They don’t require any expensive equipment or appointments with a health care professional.

They're exercises you can do almost anywhere and with little to no help from others. You can do them at home, at work, or even while standing in line at the grocery store.

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How does progressive muscle relaxation work?

Progressive muscle relaxation works by tightening individual muscles one at a time, followed by a period of relaxation to release the tension. This relaxation exercise emphasizes the importance of finding mental calmness after holding in a lot of physical tension. 

Progressive muscle relaxation exercises start with one muscle group at a time. It's important to isolate the particular muscle group to ensure you release all of the tension you created before moving on to the next muscle group.

Releasing this tension is what helps you feel physically and mentally relaxed. You can do these techniques by standing, sitting, or lying down.

It's a practice that takes as little as 10 minutes, depending on which muscle group you prioritize. But 10 minutes is effective if you only focus on one area. Relaxation training takes patience and dedication. You can’t rush your body if you want to reap the health benefits of better physical well-being and health.

How to do progressive muscle relaxation

If you’re intrigued by progressive muscle relaxation but don’t understand how to do it, don’t worry. We’ll walk you through seven different progressive muscle relaxation exercises below:

(Before you begin these exercises, be mindful of your breathing. Try doing some breathing exercises to rid your mind of negative or intrusive thoughts if you need. It'll teach you how to build resilience and be mindful of each body part. Focus on each muscle group as you progress and go at a pace that works for you. Above all: relax).

For all of these muscle groups, hold the tension in your muscles for as long as possible — at least 15 seconds — and then count backward from 30 after you release, breathing evenly. 

1. Feet: Begin with your feet by increasing the tension in your toes. Tighten them up as hard and as long as possible, then release them. 

2. Legs: Starting in your quadriceps and moving to your lower leg and calf muscles, build up tension in your body. Squeeze your muscles, then release that tension. Note how it feels to release that pressure. 

3. Buttocks: Whether standing or sitting, slowly increase tension in your glute muscles. Do your best to do this slowly, and hold it. Be mindful of your breathing. The human body carries a lot of tension in the hips, which might be intense.

4. Hands and arms: Make a fist either one hand at a time or simultaneously. Bring your fists to your chest, and hold them there for 15 seconds. Make sure you're tensing your fists and arms tightly without hurting yourself, then release the tension and drop your fists from your chest. Consider how your chest feels more at ease afterward.


5. Neck and shoulders: To increase the tension in your neck and shoulders, raise your shoulders close to your ears. After your 15 seconds, slowly release your shoulders.

6. Jaw: This is where a lot of people feel tension. Start to tense your jaw muscles. Be careful if you have any dental issues or sore teeth while doing this. Then, release the tension from your jaw and take deep breaths.

7. Forehead: Tightly squeeze your forehead muscles together. Hold it, then slowly release the pressure you've built up. If you have a headache, don't strain your forehead too much, but don't be too delicate. 

Find someone to help you develop your technique and encourage you to do them regularly. At BetterUp, our coaches can help hold you accountable as you develop relaxation techniques that best benefit you most.

7 benefits of progressive muscle relaxation

We all get excited when it comes to achieving stress relief. But progressive muscle relaxation techniques do more than just help with stress reduction. The benefits spread to every inch of our bodies. Although we might not realize it right away, it supports our physical health and overall well-being.

Here are seven benefits that these relaxation techniques can bring you:

  1. Your heart rate slows 
  2. Lower cortisol and other stress hormones
  3. You begin to feel less anxious
  4. Your blood pressure decreases
  5. How often you have migraines is reduced
  6. You sleep better after finding stress relief
  7. Reduced back pain


How can progressive muscle relaxation help with stress and insomnia?

When we're stressed, we either oversleep or don’t get enough. It’s even more challenging to have a good night's rest if we struggle with sleeping disorders and insomnia. Luckily, progressive muscle regulation does help anxiety and stress levels so that we can sleep soundly again.

Since relaxation techniques are supposed to induce deep relaxation, it's no wonder they relax our bodies so much that we fall asleep.

A recent study of American adults found that 43% reported that stress caused them to lie awake at night. 21% said that not getting enough sleep caused them stress. It's a vicious cycle that needs to end. How are we expected to overcome our stress without proper sleep?


Here's where the progressive muscle relaxation method comes in handy. As you release the tension you've held in your muscles and continue your deep breathing, your body begins physically to relax.

Your mind is clearer, and you're more aware of how much tension your body carries and how to release it. Some studies have shown that people who use relaxation techniques like this sleep longer at night. One of the main benefits of relaxation techniques also happens to be that people fall asleep faster. 

Although this method can work well, it may not work for everyone when they want to sleep. For some people, it's not enough to help them fall asleep, but that's OK.

It takes considerable effort and practice to use mindful relaxation for sleep. It takes determination and resilience, but it's not a guaranteed way to solve sleeping problems.

How to do progressive muscle relaxation in the workplace

Workplace stress can impact all of us. Sometimes at work, we become so caught up in what we're doing that we let our stress get the better of us. That's why we must be aware of mental health issues that stem from the workplace and how to can cope with them.

You can do progressive muscle relaxation techniques anywhere, so why not incorporate them while working?

Whether you work remotely from home or in an office, here are five tips to help relax your body and continue to enjoy the benefits that your job can bring us:

  • Set a timer to schedule muscle relaxation throughout your day
  • While taking a break, make sure to incorporate the techniques
  • Do them even when you aren't stressed or sense a stressful situation coming
  • Find a space to do them where you are less likely to be interrupted
  • Be confident that you’re investing in yourself and modeling valuable behavior for others when you do relaxation techniques


For the future: 5 other relaxation techniques

Progressive muscle relaxation techniques are a great way to reduce stress all on your own. You can do your relaxation exercises whenever and wherever you want. It’s an independent way to reduce stress at home or work.

Every inch of your body benefits from this technique, from your toes to your forehead. Afterward, pay attention to your heart rate, sleeping pattern, and back pain to see if they improve. But don't worry if the progressive muscle relaxation technique isn't reducing your stress exactly as you hoped it would. You have lots of other stress reduction techniques to try. 

For the future, here are five other stress techniques you can try out:

  1. Journaling your thoughts and feelings
  2. Mindful meditation practices
  3. Visualization or guided imagery
  4. Listening to music
  5. Drawing, painting, or other artist creations

Discovering which stress techniques work best for you is a process, but there’s no downside. BetterUp can help you find the techniques that work for you and make you feel like you're managing your stress in the best ways.

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Published August 13, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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