Today, for the skill of the month, I'd like to introduce you to a tried and true skill. There are at least three variant names for this technique: Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Paired Muscle Relaxation, and Progressive Relaxation but they all have the same basic technique and goal: to, in a relatively short amount of time, relax your body and therefore relax your mind.
Along with abdominal breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a technique that is taught early on in graduate level psychology courses. Unlike abdominal breathing, though, Progressive Muscle Relaxation takes longer to learn and at first execute. Like abdominal breathing, though, it can also be done as you settle into sleep.
Let me take a brief moment to describe how this amazing and highly beneficial technique is done. You begin by sitting or laying down in a comfortable position. Next, you draw your attention to your feet and tense the muscles of your feet for 10-15 seconds. If you have chronic pain or some kind of muscle pain that makes the tension uncomfortable, simply visualize that your muscles in that area are melting or softening. If you're tensing, after a few moments, relax the muscles of your feet, take a nice cleansing breath, enjoying the feeling of relaxation that has taken over in the muscles of your feet, then move up to the calves and repeat the exercise with each muscle group as you progress up through your body, ending with your face and head.
The only difference between the techniques is the following. The order of muscle groupings is opposite in Paired Muscle Relaxation. Usually you would begin at the head and work down to the toes but you don't have to do it in that order. When you begin to learn Paired Muscle Relaxation, just like in Progressive Muscle Relaxation, each muscle group is done individually. After a day or two, however, you begin to pair certain muscle groups together and tense and release them simultaneously. After a few more days of practice, you again pair the muscle groups into larger muscle groups (more groups tensed at once) until eventually you are tensing your entire body and relaxing your entire body in one step. The ultimate goal in all of these is to be able to relax without having to tense anything--with merely the thought or a one-word command.
With Progressive Relaxation, the muscle tensing is optional. As stated earlier, if you suffer from chronic pain or muscle weakness or strain, you might choose to omit the purposeful tensing to avoid the discomfort that may come from that.
We carry tension in our bodies without even being aware of it. I often joke with my clients that you can see my stress by looking at my forehead! I have carried my stress there for so long, I have wrinkles! Maybe if I'd have started doing a progressive relaxation technique earlier, I would be without those lines running across my forehead! Practicing Progressive Relaxation helps you become more aware of the tension that you carry and allows the opportunity to release it quickly and effectively.
I recently ran across this video that is a nice guided progressive relaxation exercise. At the end of it, the gentleman explains, as I do for my clients when encouraging them to give Progressive Muscle Relaxation a try, that although it seems to take a long time at first, the more you practice it, the more your body "gets" what you're doing and it takes less and less time to become fully relaxed. I also like to think of certain areas becoming "triggers". I can tense and release the muscles in my hands (making tight fists and then relaxing them) and, upon doing so, I can learn to relax my entire body with just the "trigger". So, there is a moderate initial time investment in this skill, but the return on your investment is great!
The video I have linked to this blog is a good introduction although it is slightly more "self-hypnosis" then is strictly necessary but if you're having trouble getting into practicing this exercise, it is an easy way to get started as you simply listen and follow the words of the speaker.
If you would like to try Paired Muscle Relaxation, you might find this list helpful.