How to Relax Your Muscles to Ease Stress and Anxiety

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Learning how to relax muscle tension is proven effective to reduce stress, anxiety, and panic, and can improve most stress-based conditions.

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“An anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body.”
— Dr. Edmund Jacobson, inventor of progressive muscle relaxation

Stress is a part of modern life.

And when you’re under stress, your muscles tense up.

This is a natural mechanism to protect you from pain and injury when you’re in danger.

Having tension headaches and back, shoulder, and neck pain is so common that it might seem normal, but it’s not.

Most of us are so used to having muscle tension that we don’t even realize it.

The Vicious Cycle of Muscle Tension and Stress

You are probably familiar with the flight-or-fight response that you experience when under stress.

This is technically known as the stress response.

During the stress response, your muscles tighten, breathing gets shallow, heart rate increases, and digestion shuts down.

Since your body is always seeking a state of balance, there is also an opposing response known as the relaxation response.

When the relaxation response is elicited, your muscles relax, breathing and heartbeat slow down, and blood pressure and digestion return to normal. (1)

But when the stressors of modern life keep coming at you, the relaxation response never gets a chance to kick in.

The result?

Your muscles stay permanently tight.

Perversely, muscle tightness sends a signal to your brain that there’s danger ahead, eliciting the stress response.

It’s easy to see how this sets up a never-ending loop of stress and muscle tension.

To break this vicious cycle, you can use a simple stress reduction technique that teaches you how to relax your muscles on demand.

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How to Relax Muscles With Progressive Muscle Relaxation

There are many techniques to relax muscles, but none compare to the granddaddy of muscle relaxation techniques, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).

PMR has a long history of use and a substantial body of scientific evidence to support its effectiveness.

This deep relaxation technique has been around since the 1920s.

It was developed by Dr. Edmund Jacobson, a Harvard-trained physician, who is also considered the first practitioner to use biofeedback with his patients. (2)

Consequently, progressive muscle relaxation is sometimes called Jacobson’s progressive relaxation technique. (3)

It involves a two-step process of alternately tensing and relaxing groups of muscles in an exaggerated, systematic way.

Jacobson recognized that physical stress and mental stress were interrelated and believed that an anxious mind could not exist in a relaxed body.

Using PMR to relax your muscles can help you break the vicious cycle of stress and muscle tension.

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Proven Benefits of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation lets you relax your muscles and put yourself into a state of deep relaxation at will.

This makes it beneficial for any condition with a stress-related component.

Since 90% of doctors’ visits are for stress-related complaints, this covers a lot of territory! (4)

Progressive muscle relaxation has been proven to help the following common mental and physical health complaints.

Relaxing Your Muscles Helps Anxiety and Panic

If you have anxiety, you’ve probably gotten used to having tight muscles.

If you’ve forgotten what having a relaxed body feels like, using PMR can help you remember.

It will help you distinguish between your “normal” feelings of muscle tension and a truly relaxed state.

As Dr. Jacobson discovered, you can’t be both relaxed and anxious at the same time.

So, decreasing muscle tension will naturally lead to a decrease in feelings of anxiety.

By addressing the root cause of muscle tension, progressive relaxation is highly effective at alleviating a variety of anxiety and panic disorders. (5)

Muscle Relaxation for Insomnia

If you have insomnia, progressive muscle relaxation can help in two ways.

It relaxes your body when you can’t sleep because you’re physically restless.

And it focuses and calms your mind when racing thoughts keep you awake.

Progressive muscle relaxation helps those who use it fall asleep on average 30 minutes faster. (67)

It can also help you sleep better and wake up feeling more refreshed.

Sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus says that progressive muscle relaxation is one of his favorite sleep techniques and that he uses it with all his patients. (8)

If you have trouble sleeping, I recommend listening to his guided progressive muscle relaxation exercise for sleep.

Progressive Relaxation for High Blood Pressure

If you have high blood pressure, you’ve certainly been told that you need to relax!

There’s merit to this since one of the effects of the stress response is a rise in blood pressure.

PMR alters your sympathetic nervous system causing a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate.

If you take any high blood pressure medication, be sure to talk to your doctor before trying progressive muscle relaxation since it might alter your need for medication. (9)

Other Medical Uses for Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation has been studied as an alternative therapy for cancer patients.

Studies on breast cancer patients show that progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy as well as the anxiety, depression, and insomnia that often accompany this disease. (10)

Some cancer hospitals and clinics offer programs in relaxation techniques, including progressive muscle relaxation.

It can also help people with epilepsy experience fewer seizures. (11)

PMR is useful for treating some types of chronic pain including backache, headaches, and arthritis.

Since stress slows down the digestive system, PMR is beneficial for those with ulcers, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and other digestive disorders. (1213)

When using PMR to treat any health condition, consider working with a health care professional who is trained in its use.

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Muscle Relaxation Exercises to Get Started

There are two main steps to progressive muscle relaxation — intentionally tensing muscles and then intentionally releasing that tension.

Here’s a quick exercise to give you an idea of how progressive muscle relaxation feels.

Clenched Fist Muscle Relaxation Exercise

Clench your right hand to make a fist while flexing it upward at the wrist.

Hold tight for 10 seconds then release, letting your hand go limp.

Do this a few times.

You should notice that your right hand now feels more relaxed than your left.

Most progressive relaxation techniques start with the feet and work their way up to the head, but some do the opposite.

Here’s an example of a typical full-body progressive muscle relaxation sequence.

Full-Body Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise

Get comfortable.

Take a few deep relaxing breaths.

Start by focusing on your right foot.

Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeeze hard and hold for 10 seconds.

Relax your right foot and notice the tension flowing away.

Thinking to yourself “relax” or “letting go” can help.

Repeat with your left foot.

Work your way up your body, tightening and releasing groups of muscles, alternating between your right and left sides.

Concentrate on these groups of muscles in this order:

  • calf
  • knee
  • thigh
  • hip
  • lower back
  • abdomen
  • upper back
  • chest
  • shoulders

Then move your focus to your hands.

  • wrist
  • forearm
  • elbow
  • upper arm
  • shoulder

Finally, move your focus to your head.

  • neck and throat
  • face
  • back of the head
  • top of the head

When you are done with this sequence, end with relaxing your eyes.

Slowly count backwards from 5 to 1.

Repeat to yourself, “Eyes open. Feeling calm and fully alert.”

Open your eyes and get up slowly.

Mini-Exercises to Relax Muscles Fast

Sometimes you haven’t got time to do a complete progressive muscle relaxation session.

In this abbreviated version, you lump smaller muscle groups together and focus on these four main muscle groups:

  • legs and feet combined
  • abdomen and chest combined
  • arms and hands combined
  • shoulder, neck, and face combined

You can do this mini-exercise in a minute or two anytime you want to de-stress in a hurry.

Another way you can use this mini-session is by doing a quick body scan.

Notice which muscles are feeling tense and do a quick release in just that area.

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Using PMR as a Relaxation Warm-Up

Oddly, some people feel more anxious when they first begin meditating or doing relaxation exercises, but muscle relaxation can help.

Health care professionals often use PMR as a warm-up exercise before employing relaxation techniques such as autogenic training or biofeedback.

Guided Muscle Relaxation Exercises

Most people find it significantly more relaxing and effective to be guided through this exercise rather than trying to remember it on their own.

Major universities are a great place for finding free stress relief resources:

  • University of Texas’s MindBody Labs has several guided relaxation exercises you can listen to including muscle relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, and body scan meditations.

InsightTimer

Lastly, you’ll find guided progressive muscle relaxation exercises on InsightTimer, the #1 free meditation app for both Android and iOS.

InsightTimer has thousands of meditations including a few dozen progressive muscle relaxation meditations that you can locate using their search function.

This popular app also gives you access to thousands of free guided meditations, music tracks, talks, and courses by some of the biggest names in meditation, including Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Progressive Muscle Relaxation Safety and Cautions

Progressive muscle relaxation is generally considered safe, so safe that it’s recommended for use with children. (14)

But if you have a history of muscle spasms or ongoing pain from an injury, talk to your doctor first.

There’s a chance that tensing your muscles too tightly could make your muscle spasms worse.

Also, if you have low blood pressure, get up very slowly after doing this or any other relaxation exercise.

Standing up too quickly could make you feel lightheaded or cause you to faint.

Other Proven Ways to Relax Muscle Tension

Progressive muscle relaxation isn’t the only way to relax your muscles.

Mind-Body Exercise

Performing mind-body exercises like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong will reduce muscle tension.

So does acupuncture or a form of self-acupressure known as tapping (also known as Emotional Freedom Technique).

Massage or Sauna

Getting a massage or sitting in a sauna are wonderful ways to loosen tight muscles.

Foam Roller

Since few of us have access to a sauna or round-the-clock masseuse, the next best thing is rolling tight muscles on a foam roller.

woman using foam roller
Use a foam roller to relax tight muscles. (Image courtesy of WellandGood.com)

You’ll find six exercises to relax your muscles and reduce stress from foam roller expert Lauren Roxburgh on WellandGood.com.

Lastly, if you frequently have tight muscles, I suggest you look into the following supplements:

Magnesium

Tight muscles and cramps can be a sign of magnesium deficiency.

This mineral is critical for feeling relaxed, but upwards of 75% of Americans have subpar levels. (15)

This is due largely to chronic stress which depletes magnesium, eating processed food, and mineral-depleted soil in which much of our food today is grown. (16)

Taurine

Taurine is an amino acid supplement commonly taken by endurance athletes and bodybuilders to relieve muscle damage, cramps, and soreness.

Taurine stimulates the release and formation of GABA, the brain chemical responsible for feelings of calm and relaxation. (17)

Kava

Kava is a traditional drink in the South Pacific.

It’s also available as an herbal remedy that has potent relaxing properties.

This makes it good for anxiety, stress, and insomnia as well as for muscle tension and spasms. (18)

Like taurine, kava works in part by increasing GABA levels in the brain.

Should You Stretch to Relax Your Muscles?

You may be surprised to learn that the common practice of stretching to loosen tight muscles is controversial.

Research consistently finds that stretching before or after exercise does not loosen tight muscles but, in fact, may diminish muscle function and increase susceptibility to injury.

If you want to know more, I recommend these articles on the dangers of stretching and reasons not to stretch.

How to Relax Your Muscles: Take the Next Step

Tight muscles are not only a result of stress, they also contribute to stress.

But you can break the vicious cycle of stress and muscle tension by learning how to relax your muscles with the progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) technique.

By releasing muscle tension, PMR can help any physical or mental health condition that’s rooted in stress.

Proven benefits of progressive muscle relaxation include the reduction of anxiety and panic, improved sleep, lowering of high blood pressure, and improved digestion.

Use this muscle relaxation technique whenever you find yourself stuck in flight-or-fight mode and need to jump-start your body’s natural relaxation response.

READ NEXT: Autogenic Training: A Surprisingly Effective Relaxation Technique