If you've ever fallen asleep during the corpse pose portion of yoga class, progressive muscle relaxation may be why.
A relaxation technique that goes back to the 1930s, progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is when you tense or tighten a muscle group and then release before moving through the next set of muscles. And as simple as it sounds, PMR is also a tried-and-true strategy for easing insomnia and difficulty sleeping.
And more — studies show this technique is effective for reducing anxiety, headaches, high blood pressure, and digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome, explains Dr. Kathryn A. Boling, a Mercy Medical Center family medicine specialist based in Lutherville, Maryland.
“Some people fall asleep before they even finish their progressive muscle relaxation exercises,” Boling says. She notes that’s especially true when insomnia is due to anxiety as well as emotional and physical stress.
In fact, according to a recent study of people with anxiety disorders, an eight-week progressive muscle relaxation program significantly reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress, while improving health-related quality of life, mental health, and feelings of well-being. And in one 2020 study, PMR significantly reduced anxiety levels and improved sleep quality in people with COVID-19. Previous research shows that PMR can combat the sleeplessness that can occur with breast cancer-related chemotherapy or with multiple sclerosis.
Benefits of progressive muscle relaxation for sleep, stress, and anxiety
Progressive muscle relaxation activates the body’s parasympathetic response, Boling explains. Within the body’s autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic, or “fight or flight” system, is like the body’s gas pedal. Activating it increases stress hormone levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
The parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” system, however, slows the body to its baseline. Stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension all ease up.
Progressive muscle relaxation works because when your muscles are fully relaxed, it’s natural for your body to move from an alert state to a resting state. When you encourage each muscle group to relax – in tandem with slow, diaphragmatic breathing — you can enter a more relaxed physiological state, explains Nicole Avena, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, and visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University.
The combination of PMR and diaphragmatic breathing is powerful, as diaphragmatic breathing alone is known to trigger a parasympathetic response.
What’s more, as Boling notes, the act of mentally focusing on tensing and relaxing each muscle directs mental attention from other thought processes like to-do lists, stressors, and worries.
“PMR pushes all those thoughts that we go over each night out of our heads and forces us to focus on one thing – relaxing,” says Boling.
Try PMR for better sleep
Boling recommends performing progressive muscle relaxation every night as part of your nightly sleep routine. You’ll want to tense and relax at least 16 muscle groups, moving from your toes all the way up to your forehead. Think 360 and don’t forget to include your stomach, hips, butt, and neck.
If you're not used to power napping, doing PMR on a yoga mat may help you fall asleep faster and recover. The reason we recommend laying on a yoga mat is for instances you can't fall asleep. This will help prevent your brain from associating the bed with being awake.
Otherwise, if you're ready to completely hit the hay, go ahead and try PMR in bed.
Yoga mat or bed, rest your arms by your sides, close your eyes, and take a few slow deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Then follow these steps:
- Tense the muscles of your toes and feet. Concentrate on feeling them scrunch up as tightly as possible. Hold for four to 10 seconds, inhaling as you do so.
- Exhale and completely release the tension in your muscles. Breathe slowly through your nose and out through your mouth for another 10 to 20 seconds, focusing on feeling that muscle group and your body sink down. (Don’t worry about the clock or being strict on timing; the point here is to relax.)
- Repeat step 2 for the rest of your muscle groups: calves, thighs, hips, butt, core, back, shoulders, biceps, chest, forearms, hands, neck, around the eyes, and jaw. (If you prefer, you can do PMR in the reverse order, moving from the head down, or in any other sequence.)
- As you move through the muscle groups, notice any areas of your body that holding extra tension. Try maximally squeezing and then releasing, as many times as necessary to fully relax.
Once you’ve finished your progressive muscle relaxation, you should feel more aware of your body and how it rests into your mattress. Take advantage of this state by keeping your eyes closed and getting in your most comfortable position for sleep, Boling says.
Resist the urge to check your phone or do anything else. Focus on the sensation of your relaxed muscles, noticing the before and after effects of practicing PMR.
If you’re still having trouble falling asleep, try repeating the PMR. Focusing on your breath instead of how tense you are may also help with relaxing.
Practice makes perfect with PMR
For the greatest sleep benefits with progressive muscle relaxation, consistency is key. As you practice, you’ll improve your ability to both tense and release your muscles as well as to focus your attention on the sensations in your body. What’s more, as your body learns that PMR is part of your bedtime routine, it will further act as a sign to your body that it’s time for sleep.
Throughout the course of the exercise, focus on the physical sensation of tightening and releasing each muscle, but know that it’s natural for your mind to wander. If and when it does, don’t worry or judge yourself. Just take notice and then return your attention to the muscle group you’re engaging.
Think of PMR as a form of meditation
As the Cleveland Clinic stresses, PMR is a form of meditation and should be treated that way. Ideally, you’ll be practicing PMR in a quiet, comfortable space like your bedroom, where you won’t be interrupted.
Listening to one and following along can be a great way to stay focused, especially when you are new to PMR, according to Avena. Following an audio script works similarly to sleep hypnosis, where your brain bypasses active thinking to focus on relaxation.
Because PMR relaxes the body while simultaneously directing one’s attention to the present moment, it tends to be the most effective in people who have anxiety at night, racing thoughts at bedtime, and insomnia.
Give PMR a boost by making sure you’re truly in relaxation mode before you snuggle into bed. To do that, go through your sleep hygiene checklist – like avoiding blue light an hour before bed, taking a warm bath, and drinking a cup of warm chamomile tea – lie down in your bed with the lights off.
Then, once you’re under the blankets and feeling yourself fighting sleep, close your eyes and start tensing and relaxing your muscles, from head to toe. It could be better than counting sheep.