September 8, 2013

Can't Unwind? Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Often our bodies hold stress in the form of tense or tight muscles.  In other words, physical tension is caused by muscle constriction.  This tightening of the muscles occurs when we experience either short term, in-the-moment stress (a short-lived frightening experience such as a violent storm) or long term stress (such as unrelenting work overload or taking care of an aging parent).

The long term form of stress, if left unattended, can lead to chronic muscle tightness that doesn't let up.  These muscles can remain tense all through out the day for weeks on end without us being aware. The tightness can even hold fast while we sleep (which can explain some early-morning headaches, for example, or feeling exhausted upon awakening). Chronic muscle constriction is associated with tissue inflammation, muscle strains and spasms as well as more serious, long term illnesses.

Many who experience long term stress and muscle tension are unable to simply relax their musclestry as they may.  One exercise, called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (also known as Deep Muscle Relaxation) helps ease that I-can't-seem-to-relax muscle tension.

In the following selected videos, a voice guides you through a systematic form of tensing and relaxing muscles.   A quieting of the mind typically follows relaxed muscles.  The first video by Dr. LuAnn Helms, introduces the exercise with an explanation of how PMR can be helpful.

 Video by Dr. LuAnn Helms (Psychologist) of Utah State University's Counseling and Psychological Services

Video by University of New Hampshire

1.  Do each muscle group twice; five second tense, fifteen seconds relax.  Always relax the muscles longer than the tightening.
2.  You may want to skip tensing eye muscles into a frown - some find this produces headache sensations.  Instead, think about lifting your forehead muscles toward the ceiling in a muscle-smoothing fashion.  In fact, skip tensing any muscle groups that cause pain.
3. Remember to focus on the feeling of quiet, calm, relaxation when you shift from the tightening of the muscle group to relaxing.

-Sandy Andrews, Ph.D.
CBT Cognitive Behavioral Psychologist 
Austin, Texas

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