Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a muscle-relaxation technique that has been used in clinical and non-clinical settings for decades.
This article will discuss what PMR is and why it can be therapeutically useful, and will then go on to describe what a PMR session looks like with a step-by-step guide.
This article will also round up some useful PMR scripts people can use to start their own practice, and will finally highlight some YouTube videos and smartphone apps that people can use to start their practice with guided PMR sessions.
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What Is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is:
“an effective and widely used strategy for stress relief that creates a state of deep relaxation by involving alternate tensing and relaxing of muscles” (Sundram et al., 2016).
It is as simple as it sounds, as PMR consists entirely of focusing on a muscle group, tensing that muscle group, and then relaxing that muscle group. This process is repeated throughout the entire body, so that one has tensed and relaxed their entire body by the end of a session.
When & Why It Is Used In Therapy
Progressive muscle relaxation is useful for conditions which cannot be completely treated through pharmacological means, such as dementia (Ikemata & Momose, 2017). Even for conditions which respond well to pharmacological treatment, “[a] non-drug method of inducing relaxation has little if any risk and therefore may be preferred over drug methods” (Canter et al., 1975). PMR can also be useful as a supplement in cases where someone is undergoing pharmacological treatment, as it is not a pharmacological intervention and does not pose any interaction risks.
PMR is a particularly useful supplementary treatment for certain psychological conditions. In people trying to quit smoking, PMR has been shown to be effective in reducing withdrawal symptoms such as craving (Limsanon & Kalayasiri, 2015). Another study examining PMR in people with schizophrenia concluded that PMR was a useful “add-on treatment” that could reduce anxiety and stress levels and increase well-being (Vancampfort et al., 2013). These authors also note that PMR can be a useful therapeutic intervention since they found no major adverse effects from PMR, and since PMR can be implemented at “minimal cost”.
While PMR is an effective intervention for a number of conditions (and is even effective for mentally- and physically-healthy people), it can take a lot of therapy sessions to complete. For this reason, researchers have developed abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation (APMR), which can successfully promote relaxation in a single, 20-minute session (Dolbier & Rush, 2012). The development of APMR makes PMR (or a version of it such as APMR) an even more accessible treatment intervention, in terms of both cost and time. PMR is also useful for all sorts of people, because everyone could stand to reduce their stress and anxiety levels, as well as increase their overall well-being.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Step By Step
The section below lists a few scripts for PMR that one can follow. For an idea of what PMR looks like, though, here is a short step-by-step description of the practice (adapted from the PDF from the Centre for Clinical Interventions, the third script listed below). Each muscle should be tensed for about 5 seconds (but not tensed to the point of pain), then relaxed for about 10 seconds:
5 Scripts For Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PDF)
If the step-by-step above was not detailed enough, here are five scripts one can use to practice PMR. One can either follow along with a script as they go, or they can have a friend lead them through the script, or they can record themselves reading the script and then follow that recording. One can also find pre-recorded PMR scripts (and other resources) in the section below this one.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Script from the University of California Berkeley School of Law
This script, adapted by the University of California Berkeley School of Law from Edmund J. Bourne’s The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, walks the reader through a full PMR session. It is very simple to follow and can serve as a great introductory script to PMR for people with no PMR experience. This is the best option for people who want to jump right into a PMR practice.
Progressive muscle relaxation script from Baylor University
This script, like the one above from the UC Berkeley School of Law, is also three pages long. This script, however, is a bit wordier than the above script, and while it follows the same basic pattern it is more descriptive about the process. This script is a good option for people who like to understand why they are doing why they are doing, rather than simply following a simple step-by-step script.
Progressive muscle relaxation from the Centre for Clinical Interventions
This PDF is an all-in-one, single page primer on PMR. It first walks through what muscle tension is to explain why PMR can be helpful. Then it offers tips related to PMR (telling the reader to minimize distractions or to avoid PMR after a large meal, for example), and finally walks through the process with a barebones script. This PDF is an excellent introduction to PMR (both the theory behind it and its practice), but some people might prefer a more rigid script than this one offers.
Progressive muscle relaxation script from The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto
This is another simple script for PMR, but is aimed at parents who want to lead their children through the script. Other people who work with children, such as coaches, physical education teachers (or any kind of teacher, really), may also find this helpful for walking children through PMR. Of course, anyone who wants to practice PMR (child or otherwise) can also try this is a starting point.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Children and Adolescents
This PDF is also aimed at parents who want to lead their children (or adolescents) through PMR. It includes a few other useful sections, however, including ways to talk to children about stress. Finally, this PMR script also includes starting points for children who want to practice breathing awareness or visualization as well. This is a good all-in-one PDF for parents of children who struggle with stress and tension in general.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Audio (Youtube & Apps)
For people who prefer pre-recorded or guided PMR sessions, here are three that can be easily accessed on YouTube, as well as two that can be found inside meditation apps for smartphones.
A 6 Minute Mindful Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This is an extremely short guided progressive muscle relaxation. It can be completed in six minutes. This video can be particularly useful for beginners, since it also shows a person following along with the guided PMR, so one only needs to watch the video if they are unsure what they should be doing.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Training
This 15-minute guided PMR includes relaxing music, and jumps into the practice immediately. This video is particularly interesting because it includes a computer-generated person following along with the PMR, and highlights the muscles which are currently being focused on. This is another great video for beginners, since they can follow along visually and audially.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Children: A Guided Relaxation for Kids
As the title suggests, this video is a guided PMR session aimed at children. The video does not include any visual elements, and is a purely audial experience. Some commenters have noted that this video helps them fall asleep, so keep that in mind before following this video at lunchtime. This is a good option for children who want to practice PMR.
Clear to Thrive
Clear to Thrive is an Android meditation app with a variety of guided meditation sessions, most of which do not involve PMR. There is one free PMR guided session, though, that lasts a bit under 8 minutes. To access it, after downloading and opening the app, navigate to “Audios”, and then scroll all the way down. The guided PMR will be on the bottom right of the screen.
Pacifica – Stress & Anxiety
Like Clear to Thrive, this is a compilation meditation and mental wellness app, not a dedicated PMR app. Unlike Clear to Thrive, though, Pacifica is available for both Android and iOS. After downloading and opening the app (and completing the quick sign-up process), press the big green button in the middle of the bottom row, then press “Meditation”. From there, “Relax Your Muscles” should be visible as a free download. The 9-minute track is a guided PMR track, despite its generic name.
A Take Home Message
Progressive muscle relaxation is an excellent example of the intersection between traditional psychology and positive psychology. PMR is a crucial tool for the treatment of certain disorders, such as schizophrenia, but is being increasingly used in non-clinical populations as well.
Part of this is due to how easy and accessible PMR practices are. Future developments in positive psychology can use PMR as a sort of blueprint, in that they should strive to provide mental health benefits whether or not one has a mental health disorder, but should also strive to be easily taught, learned, and practiced by anyone who is interested.
- Canter, A., Kondo, C.Y., Knott, J.R. (1975). Comparison of EMG Feedback and Progressive Muscle Relaxation Training in Anxiety Neurosis. British Journal of Psychiatry, 127(1), 470-477. doi:10.1192/bjp.127.5.470
- Dolbier, C.L., Rush, T.E. (2012). Efficacy of Abbreviated Progressive Muscle Relaxation in a High-Stress College Sample. International Journal of Stress Management, 19(1), 48-68. doi:10.1037/a0027326
- Ikemata, S., Momose, Y. (2017). Effects of a progressive muscle relaxation intervention on dementia symptoms, activities of daily living, and immune function in group home residents with dementia in Japan. Japan Journal of Nursing Science, 14(2), 135-145. doi:10.1111/jjns.12147
- Limsanon, T., Kalayasiri, R. (2015). Preliminary Effects of Progressive Muscle Relaxation on Cigarette Craving and Withdrawal Symptoms in Experienced Smokers in Acute Cigarette Abstinence: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Behavior Therapy, 46(2), 166-176. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2014.10.002
- Sundram, B.M., Dahlui, M., Chinna, K. (2016). Effectiveness of progressive muscle relaxation therapy as a worksite health promotion program in the automobile assembly line. Industrial Health, 54(3), 204-214. doi:10.2486/indhealth.2014-0091
- Vancampfort, D., Correll, C.U., Scheewe, T.W., Probst, M., De Herdt, A., Knapen, J., De Hert, M. (2013). Progressive muscle relaxation in persons with schizophrenia: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Clinical Rehabilitation, 27(4), 291-298. doi:10.1177/0269215512455531