Decrease Stress with Progressive Muscle Relaxation

“Tension is who you think you should be.  Relaxation is who you are.” – Chinese proverb

Relaxation exercises are much more specific and intentional than simply deciding to “relax” by lounging on the sofa after a long day of work.  Progressive muscle relaxation allows us to mindfully focus on different muscle groups of the body.  By tensing and relaxing these muscle groups in a specific sequence, we are able to increase our state of relaxation.

Progressive muscle relaxation was developed by Dr. Edmund Jacobson in 1929.  He discovered that the tension stored in the body through repeated anxious thoughts or stressful events can be released by intentionally tensing muscles beyond their typical tension point and then immediately relaxing them.  He also found that when this procedure was repeated with each muscle group of the body, a deep state of relaxation can be induced.

The cognitive-behavioral therapy workbook Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 2007) provides general guidelines for how to practice progressive muscle relaxation on your own.  When practiced in this specific way, you will be able to experience the physical benefits of progressive muscle relaxation that Dr. Herbert Benson termed the relaxation response. A long-term benefit of this relaxation exercise is significant decreases in subjective levels of anxiety, anger, and other painful emotions.

Set aside 20 or 30 minutes at the beginning of your day to practice this exercise.  Even though this exercise is all about relaxation, it is still a skill that is acquired through practice.

Tighten each muscle group for seven seconds, then completely relax for twenty seconds.  Tighten your muscles as hard as you can without straining excessively.  When you release the tension, choose to let it go completely. Note the sensation of this sudden relaxation.  How do your muscles feel when the tension is released?  Through practice, you will begin to recognize the physical sensations that occur as signs of relaxation.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise

Progress through the muscle groups in the following order, as suggested by Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life.  As you practice, the sequence will become natural.


  • Clench your hands, coiling them into fists.  Hold onto this tightness for 7 seconds, noting the sensations of your muscles.  Release the tension and become aware of the difference. Maintain a steady focus on the sensations that accompany this release of muscle tension.  After 20 seconds of relaxation, tense your hands up into tight fists one more time.  Hold this tension tightly for 7 seconds, then completely melt into a state of relaxation for 20 seconds.
  • Follow these exact same guidelines as you move to your biceps.  Repeat.
  • Tense and relax your triceps next in the same sequence.  Repeat.


  • Lift your eyebrows as high as possible, noting the tension created in your forehead.  Hold this tension for 7 seconds, then release your brow completely, relaxing for 20 seconds.Repeat.
  • Tense up your entire face by squishing it up as tightly as possible for 7 seconds.  Notice where you experience the most tension or strain.  Fully release the tension for 20 seconds.  Repeat.
  • Practice the same tension and release cycle as you clench your jaw.
  • Tilt and roll your head from side to side – hold, relax, and repeat for each side.


  • Raise your shoulders as high up as possible, as if you’re trying to reach them to your ears.  Allow yourself to feel the heaviness as they fall back down after 7 seconds.  Repeat.
  • Bring your arms out in front of you, parallel with one another.  Keep them straight, crossing one arm over the other.  Really feel the stretch created in your upper back.  Hold this tensed position for 7 seconds, then fully relax for 20 seconds.  Repeat.
  • Engage in the same tension and release process with all of the muscles in your stomach and abdomen.  Repeat.
  • Arch your back, holding the tension for 7 seconds.  Fully release this tension for 20 seconds.  Notice all of the sensations that accompany the relaxation process.  Repeat.


  • Tighten your hips and thighs, increasing the tension by straightening your legs and pushing down with your heels.  Hold this position, then fully release.  Repeat.
  • Tense and relax your inner thigh muscles in this same manner.  Repeat.
  • Tighten all of your leg muscles while pointing your toes.  Hold, then fully relax.  Repeat.
  • Finally, flex your toes by drawing them towards your head while you tense your shin and calf muscles.  Release, allowing your toes to hang loose.  Repeat.

How was it for you to engage in this progressive muscle relaxation process?  If it was new for you, it may feel strange or that it takes a long time to do.  This procedure is an excellent way to fully relax, although it may not be as useful as a practical “on-the-go” relaxation tool.  You can also engage in a shorter version of progression muscle relaxation by fully tensing all of the muscles in each of the four major areas mentioned.  I look forward to discussing more types of relaxation, breathing, and visualization exercises for stress reduction with you in future posts.

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McKay, Davis, & Fanning. (2007). Thoughts & feelings: Taking control of your moods & your life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: path to relaxation… by muha… / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on May 31, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Very cool! I must admit that these exercises were significantly harder that I expected. However, they also provided considerably more relief than I expected! Great post!

    • Laura on June 1, 2011 at 9:16 pm

      James – It is amazing how deceptively difficult this progressive muscle relaxation sequence can be. It sounds like you really took the time to go through each step and reaped considerable benefit from your time and effort. I’m glad you enjoyed this post!

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