Sophie Bostock, PhD
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: a technique for deeper sleep
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique you can use at any time of day or night to help relieve stress and lift your mood. It involves tensing and then relaxing all the major muscle groups.
The idea is that when we’re stressed we can carry a lot of tension in our muscles without even realising it. In this exercise you learn to recognise tension, and then deliberately let it go, which can make you more adept at switching off the stress response. When we relax our muscles, we can also relax our minds.
Research suggests that regularly practicing progressive muscle relaxation can help with stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, back pain, migraines and poor sleep.
So, let’s give it a quick go.
During the exercise, we’re going to gradually tense and relax all the muscles in your body. When you tense your muscles, put in significant effort, but it shouldn’t be painful. If you feel any pain during the exercise, simply pause, return to your breath, and re-start with the next part of your body.
When you try this technique, please don’t try and fall asleep. Trying too hard to sleep never works! Simply tell yourself that you’re learning a new skill - the more times you do it, the easier it will become. Better sleep will just become a gradual side effect.
As you go through this exercise you will get distracted, and that’s OK. Just tell yourself to gently bring your attention back to your body.
Start by focusing on the breath. You may find it helpful to place your hands on your belly button. Take a long slow breath, all the way in, and feel your stomach rise. Hold for a few seconds, and breathe out slowly. As you breathe out, imagine the tension in your body being released, flowing out with your breath. Each time you breathe out, say to yourself.. Relax..
Turn your attention to your toes. Give them a wiggle. Now tightly curl up your toes into a ball, creating tension, focusing on that uncomfortably tight sensation. Hold for a count 5...4..3...2...1... Now gently release. Focus on that sensation of tension ebbing away from the body. With your next out breath, tell your toes ‘relax’.
Next you’re going to flex your feet, pulling the top of your feet up towards your head, and pushing your heels away. Do that now - pull your toes up towards your head. Notice the tension you’re creating in the front of your legs. Hold for 5...4..3...2...1...and now relax. Feel the tension flow away from you. Let your ankles go floppy. Every time you breathe out, you can sink a little deeper into relaxation.
Next you’re going to press your knees together. Imagine you’re holding some money between your knees and you don’t want to let it go. Focus on that tension you’re creating in your thighs. Hold for a count of 5...4..3...2...1... and then slowly release. Tell your legs ‘relax’. Let your legs feel heavy.
Next, you’re going to tighten the muscles in your bottom. Squeeze your buttocks and find yourself growing a little taller. Hold onto that tension for 5...4..3...2...1... And then let it go. Feel your hips gently falling loose. Feel the weight of your legs sinking into the surface beneath you.
Don’t forget to breathe, relaxing with every out breath.
Now turn your attention to your hands. Interlace your fingers together and then, squeeze your palms tightly together. Feel the tension creep up into your wrists and throughout your arm. Hold this for 5...4..3...2...1..., and gently release. Let your arms hang down by your sides.
Next you’re going to straighten and tense your arms. If you’re lying down, you can press your forearms down into the bed beneath you. Do that now. And Hold for 5...4..3...2...1..., and let the tension go. With your next out breath, tell your arms to relax. Your arms will feel floppy and heavy, completely relaxed.
Now turn your attention to your shoulders. Pull your shoulders up towards your ears. Feel the tension across the back of your neck, across your back and in your shoulders. Hold the tension there for 5...4..3...2...1..., and then release. Feel the tension slowly draining away. Notice that your shoulders are lower than before you started.
Now move your attention to the muscles in your face. Create tension by screwing up all the muscles in your face as small as you possibly can, and squeeze your eyes tight for a count of 5...4..3...2...1.... Then slowly let go. As you breathe out, tell the muscles in your face to relax.
Use the next few moments to hone in on any part of your body which doesn't feel quite so rested. Where can you still feel tension? Choose one part of the body and increase the tension you feel for a count of 5...4..3...2...1….. And then relax.
As you breathe out, allow your entire body to simply relax.