Many of us struggle to fall asleep (or go back to sleep after waking during the night) because we just can’t seem to switch off our minds. For some of us, we struggle to calm a racing mind due to thoughts about mundane things like formulating shopping lists or what to make for tomorrow’s dinner. For others, stress and worry — and fear about being unable to sleep — make it almost impossible to relax and get a good night’s sleep.
For times like this, relaxation techniques are a great way to calm the mind, help you relax, and prepare you for sleep. I’ve already covered a number of breathing and relaxation techniques for sleep and I’ve written about the benefits of mindfulness therapy for sleep. Today I want to discuss (and guide you through) a very specific relaxation technique known as progressive muscle relaxation.
What is progressive muscle relaxation?
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique that involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups of the body while focusing on the feelings and sensations associated with the tensing and relaxing of those muscles.
Why is progressive muscle relaxation good for sleep?
Muscle tension can cause anxiety, pain and discomfort — and you may not always notice when certain muscles in your body are tense. Focusing attention on your muscles using a process such as PMR can help reduce the symptoms associated with muscle tenseness by increasing awareness of these sensations and promoting relaxation.
PMR has also been found to influence the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is made up of two parts — the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for calming the body and mind after a perceived threat has passed).
PMR activates the parasympathetic nervous system — and this can help lower your heart rate, slow down your breathing, reduce blood pressure and even lower levels of anxiety and pain.
How to do progressive muscle relaxation at home
It’s best to practice PMR for sleep when you are in bed at night and ready for sleep. Lie on your back with your eyes closed. For best results, make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet.
This PMR session should take around 15 minutes and is based on the technique outlined in the book Payne's Handbook of Relaxation Techniques.
Note: Each time you tense your muscles, pay attention to the associated feelings and sensations. Hold the tension in each muscle group for between five and 10 seconds. When you release your muscles, pay attention to the relief, comfort and the warm, tingling sensation and how good it feels. Relax for around 10 to 20 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group.
- Start by slowly taking three deep breaths. For each breath, exhale slowly and imagine all the tension in your body slowly dissolving and floating away.
- Clench your fists. Hold the tension, then relax.
- Tighten your biceps. Hold the tension, then relax.
- Tighten your triceps. Hold the tension, then relax.
- Raise your eyebrows as high as possible to tense the muscles in your forehead. Hold the tension, then relax.
- Close your eyes as tight as possible to tense the muscles around your eyes. Hold the tension, then relax.
- Open your mouth as wide as possible to stretch the muscles around the hinge of your jaw. Hold the tension, then relax by letting your jaw hang loose.
- Lift your chin as high into the air as you can to tighten the muscles at the back of your neck. Hold the tension, then relax.
- Raise your shoulders to your ears to tighten your shoulder muscles. Hold the tension, then relax.
- Push your shoulders down into the bed to tighten the muscles around your shoulder blades. Hold the tension, then relax.
- Inhale as much air as possible to tighten the muscles of your chest. Hold, then slowly exhale and relax.
- Suck your stomach in by trying to get the back of your belly button to touch your spine. This will tighten the stomach muscles. Hold, then relax.
- Arch your lower back to tighten the muscles there. Hold, then relax.
- Tighten your butt muscles. Hold, then relax.
- Push your knees down into the bed to tighten your thighs. Hold, then relax.
- Pull your toes towards your face to tighten your calves. Hold, then relax.
- Push your toes down towards the bed to tighten your feet. Hold, then relax.
- Perform a mental body scan to see if you notice any remain tension in your body. If you do, repeat the tightening and relaxation of those muscle groups.
- Finally, imagine a wave of relaxation washing over your body starting at your head, progressing through all of your muscles and ending at your toes.
Practice makes perfect
The key to successful PMR is practice. It will likely take a number of tries before PMR feels natural — so don’t give up!
If you find it hard to follow your own script, there are a number of narrated PMR routines available online. Dartmouth College Health Service offers a number of free relaxation downloads, including a 30 minute PMR session.