Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


Your Secret Weapon Against Stress

How To Master Progressive Muscle Relaxation

What’s one of the first things that happens when you encounter a stressful situation? You tense up. Your shoulders rise, your stomach tightens, your jaw clenches.

It’s part of the evolutionary fight-or-flight response in the face of danger. Your body is literally getting ready to do battle. With a saber-toothed tiger. Except that, in reality, there aren’t any of those around.

Just your two year old.

Having a temper tantrum in the grocery store.

(Which, let’s be honest, does bear some resemblance to a saber-toothed tiger.)

The thing is, this is a normal short-term response. But if the tension doesn’t release once the stressful event is over, you start to build chronic muscle tension. Which is exhausting and, after a while, hurts too. (Tension headaches, anyone? Chronic back ache?) Plus, it also contributes to a vicious cycle: your brain registers all that tension and interprets it as a reason to feel all stressed and anxious. Thus more tension.

So you need to cultivate the skill of relaxing all those tense muscles. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is an old school—but very effective—way of coping with stress. It takes a little practice at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to slip into relax mode in a matter of seconds. And once your muscles are relaxed and warm...well, you’ll actually find that it’s quite difficult to feel stressed and anxious when you’re in that state.

Here are the instructions:

1. Choose a place where you won’t be interrupted (no small challenge, I know); stretch out on the floor, on your back, and close your eyes.

2. Breathe in, and tense your hands. Clench them into fists for 4-10 seconds.

3. Breathe out, and completely relax your hands. Allow your hands to feel warm and heavy. Notice the difference between how your muscles felt when they were tense and now that they’re relaxed.

4. Repeat the tense-relax cycle for each muscle group in order:

  • Wrists & forearms
  • Biceps/upper arms
  • Shoulders
  • Forehead
  • Around eyes
  • Cheeks/jaw
  • Around mouth
  • Back of Neck
  • Front of Neck
  • Chest
  • Back
  • Stomach
  • Hips/buttocks
  • Thighs
  • Lower legs

This muscle group order is not set in stone; many people prefer to do their progression starting in the lower limbs and moving up—feel free to experiment and go with what feels best for you.

Pro tip: get yourself an audio recording of the instructions—rather than trying to memorize them—when you’re first starting out. I suggest checking out iTunes—they have tons of podcasts with relaxation exercises.

So why is this a secret weapon? Well, it's free, it's safe, it's easy, and especially—once you've learned this skill, and practiced it a bit, you'll find you can do an abbreviated form anywhere, anytime. Just like breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation is your quick gateway to stress relief.