Letting Go with Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
I’ve recently been watching the show Call the Midwife, based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, and truly loved the introductory quote about the body at the beginning of Season 5, Episode 1.
“The female body is a complex thing. At once fragile and formidable, vulnerable and brave. It carries the seed of our hopes, the blooms our youth, the weight of our fears. It can nurture and tremble, inspire and terrify. It oppresses and protects us, holding within it all that we are, projecting the solid wish to be. It is our enemy, our friend, the very vessel of our being.”
I believe this could be said about the body in general, whether male, or female. Our bodies are the vessels that carry us through this life. And though for decades the body and the mind have been dualize and separated, truly, they are more one than we ever thought to imagine. Our bodies house our memories, hold a history of our experiences, both painful and pleasant. Our bodies both affect and are affected by our thoughts and emotions. They can offer us valuable information, which can lead us deeper into self-discovery and healing, if we take the time to listen.
However, many of us go through life without much awareness of what the body holds. We begin to feel oppressed by our body, getting used to living in discomfort, as we accumulate emotional and physical tensions as a result of daily stresses, injuries, or trauma.
Thankfully there is a great deal we can do to shift our physical and emotional experiences in order to find moments of deeper relaxation, calm, and comfort, which can replenish our inner resources and improve our quality of life. Often, a key component of my work counselling clients is to help them develop greater mindful awareness of what is happening in the body, and to empower them with multiple ways to relieve tension and regulate emotion so that the body can become more “friend” than “enemy.” After all, how can we help our bodies to feel more at ease if we aren’t able to recognize when we are holding tension?
One of my favourite ways to do this is through a technique called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), which helps increase awareness of both tension and relaxation, while creating a more peaceful state within the body. The concept is very simple, and the results are tangible. When working with youth or adults I teach it as follows (below) working with one muscle group at a time. When I teach this technique to children I work with in counselling, I call this the Spaghetti Technique, and we practice with the whole body at once, going from being a hard “raw noodle” to a wiggly “cooked noodle”. If you have kids, this can be a fun way to engage them in feeling more calm and connected. Follow along with the description below to learn more and give it a try!
Here’s how it works:
Begin in a seated or laying down position.
You are going to tense and then release each muscle group in the body, one at a time. I like to begin from the feet, feeling grounded and rooted down, and then moving upwards.
Beginning with the feet. Squeeze them up, curling toes, clenching them as hard as you can. Notice the sensations. Notice how the sensations shift or intensify as you hold tightness in this area for 10 to 15 seconds, breathing normally. When you are ready, take a conscious, deep inhale and release the tension as you slowly exhale, allowing all the tension to drain away from that area as you exhale. Notice any new sensations that may flow into this area, such as tingling, cooling or warming.
Next move to the calves, following the same pattern: Tense, hold and notice. Inhale, and then exhale as you release. Notice again.
Move up the legs to the quadriceps, then glutes and pelvic floor. Work your way up into the core, lower, then upper abdomen and back. Then move into the hands, triceps, biceps, and pectorals, one group at a time. Making your way up into the neck, shrugging your shoulders up to your ears. Finally the muscles in your face and jaw. As you exhale really become mindful of releasing each muscle group around your eyes and in your jaw, scalp, and neck.
Once you have moved through the whole body. You may want to try tensing the entire body at once, and releasing it as you exhale deeply.
Finally, take a few moments to notice any differences you have created. Be curious and try not to make judgements about what you find. If you find this challenging in the beginning, be encouraged, that’s normal! Often, the more you practice, the more deeply you can experience internal shifts towards calm and comfort, and the more you develop awareness of when you are holding tension. The wonderful thing about this is that once you become aware of something, like tension in the body, you have an opportunity to shift it, in this case by bringing movement to the area, stretching it out, or consciously letting go.
Try practicing PMR before you fall asleep at night and see what happens!