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Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A Tool for Stress Relief

COVID-19 Mask

Post-Pandemic Stress

Some say absence makes the heart grow fonder. During the COVID-19 outbreak we have been asked to stay home and thus have had the opportunity to discover whether the opposite of this adage proves true. With increased concerns about implications of cold symptoms and financial strains of the economic shutdown, stress is high and emotional reactivity more common.


This increase in general stress can result in lashing out at family members. Some estimates indicate an increase in cases of domestic violence of 20-30% since the stay-at-home measures were implemented.


Consequences of Stress

The general increase in stress can exacerbate pre-existing conditions. For many, these conditions are manageable under normal circumstances, but the uncontrollable pressures encountered in job loss or under-employment, sick family members, and concerns of virus contraction tax otherwise suitable coping resources. Fitness center and spa, restaurant and bar closures have forced us to creatively alter our stress-relieving routines. Additionally, where going for a walk in nature to reflect, heading out for a run or bike ride to blow off some steam, venting to a friend, meditating, or listening to music used to be enough to get through stressful moments, these may no longer be sufficient on their own.


As stress accumulates, you may notice its effects in the body. During the stress response, the body prepares itself for action: muscles tense, heart rate increase and adrenaline surges as the body poises for a reaction to the stressor. While this is helpful and necessary in the event of an emergency, most circumstances don’t require the kind of reaction the body often anticipates. The long-term consequences of chronic stress are well known and affect psychological, physiological, and social systems.


Many of us go about our day unaware of the tension held in the body resulting from stress. For example, muscles of the neck, shoulders and back become tight and sore from holding the shoulders in an elevated position.


Progressive Muscle Relaxation

There are various tools one can use to “inoculate” against stress. One of these is commonly called Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This technique involves flexing and relaxing groups of muscles in sequence and noting the difference between these states. The exercise itself can be quite relaxing and it is additionally intended to increase awareness of tension held in the body. What follows is a summary of the technique and should take about ten to fifteen minutes.


We will apply the following steps to various muscle groups. Do not perform the activity if you have an injury or feel pain in the area of focus. Aspects of this exercise may feel temporarily uncomfortable but not painful and are ultimately designed to distinguish tension from relaxation.


1. Starting with your shoulders, shrug them as high as they’ll go, flexing the muscles involved in the movement as much as possible, and hold for ten seconds. You might feel your body shake slightly as you do. You will likely find it difficult to maintain the same degree of tension throughout the full ten seconds. A timer may be useful for this. Do your best to flex as hard as you can for the duration. Try to specifically isolate the muscles involved in the movement, keeping the others as relaxed as possible. After ten seconds has elapsed, let your shoulders fall limp and relax the muscles involved in the movement. This next part is critical: note the aspects of the experience of the relaxing muscles. Take a few deep breaths. You may note temperature changes in the area, and perhaps a subtle pulse. You might notice postural changes. Your arms may begin to feel heavy. Focus your mind intently on the feeling of relaxation within these muscles for fifteen seconds before moving on. Notice as many of the subtleties of sensation within the muscles of your shoulders and neck.


2. Next, focus on the muscles of both arms and hands. As you flex them as intensely as possible you may find your arms begin to shake. Make a fist and squeeze. Flex the muscles of your forearms, triceps and biceps. It may help to keep your arms relatively straight. Try to maintain the intensity for the full ten seconds before allowing them to relax. Again, observe the difference between the sensations of tension and relaxation. Take a few deep breaths. Perhaps your arms hands feel warmer. Maybe your hands feel as though they are increasing in size. Notice all the subtleties of sensation here.


3. Now focus on your face and neck. Flex your jaw by clenching your teeth. Tense the muscles of the front of your neck. Shut your eyes as tightly as possible. Remember to ease off if you experience pain. Hold for ten seconds, then release. For the next fifteen seconds observe the sensations of relaxation in your jaw, face, and neck. Notice now the feeling of relaxation in the head, neck, shoulders, arms, and hands.


4. Moving now to the muscles of the torso, tighten the pectorals, abdominals, and the lats (the muscles of the back that tighten when pulling your shoulders down and backwards). Squeeze for ten seconds. Don’t let yourself relax until time elapses. Then, as you release the tension, become aware of the sensations in these areas for at least the next fifteen seconds. Take a few deep breaths. Notice how your body now feels from the waist up.


5. Now clench the buttocks as tightly as possible. Imagine that you’re squeezing a coin. Hold for ten, then release. Observe the sensations, the pulse, tingles, temperature changes, etc.


6. Move on to the front and back of the thighs - the quadriceps and hamstrings. As you flex them your legs may shake. Hold for ten seconds then release for fifteen. Notice how your legs feel now.


7. Lastly, perform the same drill with the calf muscles. After releasing the tension and noting the sensations there for a count of fifteen, pay attention to the entire lower half of your body for a few seconds. Now add into your awareness the rest of your body. Notice those parts that feel particularly relaxed and take an entire minute or two to enjoy this feeling.


8. Observe your mind state. What are your thoughts doing? Become aware of your emotional state. How do these aspects of your experience differ from the moment before you started this exercise?

If you found this exercise helpful, you can practice it daily. Some find it beneficial to use before bed to wind down from the chaos of the day and prepare for sleep.


If stress has been high and chronic, this exercise will likely feel insufficient. At Sojourn Counselling and Neurofeedback we have therapists that are trained to help find strategies to better manage and reduce stress. Out therapists are available by appointment in the North Vancouver and Surrey offices, or remotely via secure videoconference. Send us and email or book an appointment online. We would be happy to help.

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