Tullamore and Midland Tribune positive psychology columnists Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson
EVERYONE is more stressed than usual at the moment. This is not surprising as we are navigating our way through an unprecedented global pandemic.
For many of us, increased stress results in an increase in physical tension which may be experienced as muscle tightness and even pain. We are hearing people describing upper body pains and aches, tension headaches and wakening from sleep with sore muscles. To add insult to injury, because of current public health restrictions, many people are missing the opportunity to avail of some popular strategies for relieving tension such as going for a swim and sauna, or going for a massage.
From a psychological point of view, we recognise that there is a circular relationship between physical tension and emotional stress - tense body equals tense mind and vice versa. So in order to allow our minds to relax and slow down a little, we need also to relax our bodies.
In this article we will describe a set of exercises called progressive muscular relaxation which we often use with clients to help them relax, both physically and mentally. Progressive muscular relaxation (PMR) was developed by an American physician, Edmund Jacobsen in the 1920s. It is based on the fact that by tensing muscles before relaxing them, the muscles can relax more fully after releasing, letting go of physical tension more effectively.
Practising PMR helps us elicit the “relaxation response”, first described by Harvard physician Herbert Benson. Psychological research has shown that people who regularly practise PMR spend less time worrying. Regular practice of PMR has also been shown to help with general stress and anxiety management, with improving sleep and pain management.
In order to get ready to practise PMR, it is a good idea to find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for about 20 minutes. Ideally, turn off phone and device notifications. The exercises can be done lying down or else sitting comfortably, for example on a recliner chair. You will tense each muscle group for about five or six seconds. If you have any pain or discomfort in any of the key muscle groups, proceed very gently or else omit that step. Pay attention to the sensation of relaxation as you experience it in each muscle group, you may notice a feeling of heaviness, or lightness or warmth. Be aware that it is perfectly normal that your mind will wander as you go through the exercises. When this happens, simply bring your attention gently back to your breathing and the muscle group you are working on.
To begin, close your eyes or else look downwards at a spot on the floor. Now, roll your eyes upwards towards 12 o’clock. Then return the eyes to the resting position. This simple movement stimulates alpha waves in the brain, which are helpful in bringing on a state of calm and relaxation. Now bring attention to your breath. Notice as you inhale and exhale.
Next, focus on taking a few slow, deep abdominal breaths. Breathing slowly and deeply helps engage the parasympathetic nervous system which is the rest-and-digest system. For this deep relaxed breathing, inhale slowly through the nose, allowing the breath all the way down to the abdomen as if you were inflating a balloon in your tummy, then exhale slowly through the mouth. Breathe in for the count of four, hold for the count of four, then breathe out for the count of six. Repeat this breathing cycle five or six times before resuming normal breathing. Remember to keep breathing rather than holding the breath as you go through the muscle exercises.
Now, bring your attention to your hands. Clench your fists and hold in this tense position for about five seconds. All at once, let go of that tension and allow the hands to relax. Next, tighten both hands into fists and bring the fists up towards your shoulders, tightening the biceps muscles. Hold for five seconds, then release the tension. Flex the hands back at the wrists so that you feel tension in the wrists and lower arms. Hold for five seconds and then relax those muscles.
Bring your attention next to your shoulders. Shrug your shoulders up towards your ears. Hold for about five seconds and then quickly release, letting go of the tension. Gently pull your head back as if to look at the ceiling. Hold for about five seconds, and release, feeling the tension melting away.
Now bring your chin forward towards your chest, hold for five seconds and feel the tension in the back of your neck. Gently return your head to neutral and let the muscles relax.
Tighten the muscles in your forehead by raising your eyebrows as high as you can. Hold for about five seconds and then relax.
Next tighten your eye muscles by squinting your eyelids tightly shut. Hold for about five seconds and release.
Now bring attention to your mouth and jaw. Tense the jaw by clenching your back teeth and holding this for about five seconds. Release and leave your mouth open slightly.
Tense your upper back by pulling your shoulders back trying to make your shoulder blades touch. Hold for five seconds and release. Tighten your chest by taking a deep breath in, hold for about five seconds, and exhale, blowing out all the tension.
Now tighten the muscles in your stomach by pulling them in. Hold for about five seconds, and release. Gently arch your lower back. Hold for five seconds and release.
Now bring attention to your legs. Stretch your legs as if you were trying to lengthen the muscles. Hold for about five seconds then let go of the tension. Point your toes towards your head and feel the tension in your calf muscles. Hold for five seconds and relax.
Now imagine a wave of relaxation slowly spreading through your body beginning at your head and going all the way down to your toes. Gently repeat any of the exercises in areas where there is still some muscle tension. Take a few slow deep relaxed breaths and enjoy the sensations of the body relaxing.
The above instructions are a shortened version of PMR, which we regularly use with clients who are working on stress or anxiety management.
We often record them as it is helpful to have a voice guiding you through the exercises. If you are going to begin practising PMR, you could easily record the instructions on your phone, or else you will find recorded PMR exercises on Spotify or Youtube. Relaxing the body is an important step in relaxing the mind and we can all benefit from a little relaxation at this very challenging time.
Imelda Ferguson and Julie O’Flaherty are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland www.psychologicalsociety.ie (Find A Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.