Progressive muscle relaxation: A mind-body performance strategy

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a way to relieve the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety that show up as tight, aching muscles by systematically tensing and releasing certain muscle groups in your body. Whether your stress comes from a physical condition (such as an intense mission or training activity) or from mental pressure (such as anxiety or fear), both your mind and body will react. So, if you’re able to relax your mind or your body, the other will soon follow.

What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

Progressive muscle relaxation

PMR is a type of complementary and alternative medicine—a method of treatment that can be used in addition to standard medical interventions. The practice has been in use for nearly a century for a variety of mind-body disorders—from headaches to stress relief. Using PMR, you learn to release tension and develop deep relaxation by actively tensing and then relaxing the muscles throughout your body in a specific way.

To begin PMR, sit or lie down in a comfortable position and breathe slowly. Then, starting with your toes and feet, squeeze the muscles tightly, inhaling as you do. Count to 5, then relax your muscles as you exhale. Repeat 2 more times. Then, do the same for all the other muscles in your body, progressing through your legs, stomach, arms, shoulders, and neck. (If you prefer, you can also start with the muscle groups at the top of your body and work your way down. The idea is to “progress” either up or down your body.) The outcome: You can train your body to relax on command.

Stress and performance benefits

It’s easy to think your responses to stress, such as rapid heartbeat, sweat, and anxiety, are something you want to avoid altogether. But, the energy you gain from your response to stress can help you to improve your performance. It’s really about managing the stress response so it’s helpful rather than something that gets in the way. Progressive muscle relaxation can help you pump the brakes on your stress response when it’s on overdrive. In short, PMR can help you address (and control) the physical symptoms of stress and improve your performance.

Two specific physical symptoms of stress are muscle tension and shallow breathing. By practicing progressive muscle relaxation, you can more consciously tie your breath and muscle relaxation together. And, you’ll be better able to release muscle tension on demand by simply adjusting your breath. In addition to reducing stress, PMR has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and increase overall well-being and emotion management. But, the benefits come with regular practice, so consider committing to making it a part of your regular routine.

Give it a try!

Use the recording below to try a short, 10-minute progressive muscle relaxation exercise.

PMR in the military

Military Service Members are slowly adopting treatments like PMR. It’s normal to wonder if practicing PMR can be effective against the sometimes extreme stresses of military service, but there are certainly benefits worth exploring. In fact, over half of Military Treatment Facilities (MTFs) offer PMR as a treatment option—most commonly for anxiety and stress management, but also for chronic pain and post-traumatic stress.

PMR at home

Not only can progressive muscle relaxation help you improve your performance, but PMR exercises also can be beneficial for your children. Relaxation techniques are an important coping strategy for kids to develop as they increasingly encounter stress or other big emotions. Kids often lean toward using “problem-focused” coping (targeting the external situation around them), rather than “emotion-focused” coping (changing their internal response to the situation). Breathing and relaxation techniques help foster emotion coping, so it can be a good idea to do PMR with your kids to help them practice. Consider getting creative with your PMR scripts: Instead of just giving instructions, make it into a story and come up with a narrative to help relax each muscle group.


Need some ideas? Check out this muscle relaxation script for younger kids.


Progressive muscle relaxation is one of many relaxation response techniques that can help you or your loved ones lower stress levels. Learn more about how to make stress good for you at our stress optimization guide.


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References

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Herman, P. M., Sorbero, M. E., & Sims-Columbia, A. C. (2017). Complementary and alternative medicine services in the Military Health System. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 23(11), 837–843. doi:10.1089/acm.2017.0236

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