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The Power of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

April 29, 2021

By the Duke Integrative Medicine Programs Team

As we go about the activities of our day, it is often the case that we may not notice the tension in our muscles and the feelings in our bodies. With increased awareness, we can both notice and choose to relax those muscles that tend to hold habitual tension and stress.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a deep relaxation technique used to control stress and anxiety,12 help with sleep disturbances (fatigue and insomnia),3 and reduce symptoms of certain types of chronic pain.3,4

Progressive muscle relaxation may be done in either a seated or lying position. Pillows or mats may be beneficial if you choose to lie down.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a process in which systematically tensing and releasing your muscles enhances your ability to relax. It is an opportunity to become more aware of how we hold tension in our bodies that can lead to chronic pain or discomfort. You will move through the different muscle groups of your body and, by tightening and releasing, will be able to consciously bring more relaxation to each part.

You can tighten and hold that tension for about 5 seconds, then relax and let it go. Holding your breath when you tighten your muscles and exhaling as you release them can be helpful. Be careful to tighten just enough to notice that the muscles are active and engaged, but not enough to be painful. We will be tightening and then relaxing each set of muscles twice.

Start by finding a comfortable position.

If you feel comfortable closing your eyes, go ahead and allow them to close now. If you’d rather leave them open, just hold a light, gentle gaze on a point about 3 to 5 feet in front of you. You’ll now move into tensing and relaxing the muscles throughout the body.

The first set of muscles will be your facial muscles.

Tense your facial muscles by squinting your eyes, wrinkling your nose, bringing the corners of your mouth towards your ears, and tensing your jaw.

Feel the sensations in your face as the tension in these muscles builds and then relax.

Just letting the muscles go soft. Noticing what it feels like as these muscles become more and more relaxed.

Move through each area of the body, tightening then relaxing:

• Neck

• Shoulders

• Back

• Chest

• Abdomen

• Arms and hands

• Legs and feet

• Whole body

  • You have completed a cycle of progressive muscle relaxation. Take a few moments to slowly scan your whole body, noticing if there are areas that are still holding tension. If any area is still tight or tense, go ahead and tense that muscle group again.
  • Hold the tension for about 5 or 6 seconds and then relax. Take a few deep breaths, letting any unnecessary tension slip away and replacing it with a sense of relaxation.
  • When you feel as if you are relaxed as possible, just notice the sensations that are present throughout your body. What does your body feel like? Does it feel different than a few minutes ago? If so, how? Slowly open your eyes when you are ready, whether it is this breath or the next.

Copyright © 2017 Duke Integrative Medicine | MIND-BODY TOOLKIT


1. de Lorent L, Agorastos A, Yassouridis A, Kellner M, Muhtz C. Auricular Acupuncture Versus Progressive Muscle Relaxation in Patients with Anxiety Disorders or Major Depressive Disorder: A Prospective Parallel Group Clinical Trial. J Acupunct Meridian Stud. 2016;9(4):191-199.

2. Manzoni GM, Pagnini F, Castelnuovo G, Molinari E. Relaxation training for anxiety: a ten-years systematic review with meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry. 2008;8:41.

3. Charalambous A, Giannakopoulou M, Bozas E, Marcou Y, Kitsios P, Paikousis L. Guided Imagery And Progressive Muscle Relaxation as a Cluster of Symptoms Management Intervention in Patients Receiving Chemotherapy: A Randomized Control Trial. PLoS ONE. 2016;11(6).

4. Akmese ZB, Oran NT. Effects of Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercises Accompanied by Music on Low Back Pain and Quality of Life During Pregnancy. Journal of midwifery & women’s health. 2014;59(5):503-509.

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