Stress Relief: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

progressive muscle relaxation

Stress Relief Exercise in 12 Steps

By: Greg Harms, LCPC

Let’s face it – life in Chicago can be fairly stressful at times. In fact, CNN recently named Chicago one of the top stressed out cities in the United States. The reasons are plentiful, ranging from brutally cold winters to never-ending traffic, to a lack of sunshine for nearly half the year. It’s enough to make anyone feel wound up. Folks in this town need stress relief and they need it fast! But is there a quick, natural way to calm the mind and body? This simple answer is yes and it comes to us in the form of something called progressive muscle relaxation.

What is progressive muscle relaxation?

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a term used to describe an approach whereby a person teaches themselves how to relax their bodies using a two-step process. The technique was developed in 1939 by a Chicago physician named Edmund Jacobson who authored the book, Progressive Relaxation. Research has shown that PMR is an extremely effective way to help cope with stress and bring immediate anxiety relief to the mind and body.

Your body responds to anxiety and stress in many ways, including the tensing of the muscles. PMR helps to promote awareness around the way your body responds to stress. The process itself requires that you tighten your muscles beyond normal tension, then releasing them. This helps to create mindfulness around what parts of your body are holding the most stress, including the shoulders and back.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation in 12 Steps

What follows is a 12-step walk through designed to help you achieve stress relief in the form of PMR. The overriding concept here is simple – tighten and relax on group of muscles at a time.

We encourage you to devote 10-15 minutes a day to this exercise. Some people find that doing this in the morning is an excellent way to help promote wellness for the entire day. 

Are you ready? Let’s jump right in!

progressive muscle relaxation 12 steps
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Steps


1. Sit in a comfortable chair with both feet on the floor. You can also lay down flat with your arms at your side and legs fully extended.

2. Take three slow and deep breaths. Clear your mind of any thoughts and imagery.

3. Tighten the muscles in your hands and forearms. Make a tight fist and hold it for ten seconds. Focus your attention on the way the muscles in your arms and hands feel. Release the tension now for 15 seconds. Repeat tightening again and then release. Notice the sensation in your hands and arms.

4. Tighten the muscles in your forearms by flexing your wrists and your biceps and triceps in the same way – tighten for 10 seconds and then release for 15 seconds. Bring your awareness to how your muscles feel as you release that tension.

5. Tighten the muscles of your forehead and gently squeeze your eyes shut. Hold this tension for 10 seconds and focus on what you feel in your face. Now go ahead and relax those muscles for 15 seconds and be mindful of the sensations you feel, including any feelings of warmth.

6. Tighten the muscles of your neck and jaw and focus on the feelings connected to your actions. Hold the tension for ten seconds. Now release the tightening, letting your jaw relax fully. You may even want to let your mouth open a bit. Pay attention to all that you feel.

7. Pull your shoulders up toward your head and tense the muscles for ten seconds. Also, tense the muscles in your chest. It is OK to hold your breath for a moment. Now let your shoulders drop, breathe easily and slowly and let all that tension release from your chest. Spend 15 seconds focusing your awareness on what you feel in your shoulders and chest when they are relaxed.

8. Tighten your stomach. Imagine someone wants to flip a coin on your belly and watch it bounce. Hold that tension for 10 seconds and focus on the feeling in your abdomen. Let the muscles relax and breathe from your center, letting your belly move in a relaxed manner. Focus your attention on the different sensations you are feeling.

9. Tighten the muscles of your lower back and buttocks. Hold the tightness for 10 seconds and be aware of how these muscles feel. Now let the tension go and take a mental note of how this experience feels.

10. Tighten the muscles of your thighs. Hold that tension for 10 seconds and focus on how your upper legs feel. Now let tightness release for 15 seconds and bring your consciousness to bear on what this feels like. Do you feel warmth during this process?

11. Tighten the muscles of your lower legs and flex your feet so that you move your toes towards your shinbone. Hold the tension for 10 seconds and draw your awareness to all that you feel. Now rest your legs and let the tension release for 15 seconds. What are you aware of?

12. Scan your body one muscle group at a time. If you feel tension anywhere, repeat the tense and relax cycle for that particular muscle group.

Final Thoughts

Note that the recommended tensing and releasing times are guidelines. No need to time yourself precisely. Modifying your approach to PMR is completely fine. Most people start off with a basic approach like the one presented here and make changes according to what best suits their needs.



We are including a video here to help you learn more about progressive muscle relaxation. Many people find that by having a verbal guide, they are better able to engage in this kind of stress reduction activity. If you have time, we encourage you to stop by our Zen Meditation room for more videos that are designed to help you relax.

At the bottom of this page, we are also recommending a stress reduction workbook that you can use to help you better manage stress in different areas of your life. Many people find concrete tools, like a workbook, to be an excellent way to become better familiarized with basic stress reduction concepts.

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