Progressive Relaxation


You cannot have the feeling of warm well-being in your body and at the same time experience psychological stress. Progressive relaxation of your muscles reduces pulse rate, blood pressure, and the startle reflex, as well as reducing perspiration and respiration rates. Deep muscle relaxation, when successfully mastered, can be used as an anti-anxiety pill. (NOTE: Do not stop any medication without first consulting with your physician.)

Edmund Jacobson, MD, published the book Progressive Relaxation in 1929. In it he described his deep muscle relaxation technique, which he asserted required no imagination, willpower, or suggestion. His technique is based on the premise that the body responds to anxiety-provoking thoughts and events with muscle tension. This physiological tension, in turn, increases the subjective experience of anxiety. Deep muscle relaxation reduces physiological tension and is incompatible with anxiety: The habit of responding with one blocks the habit of responding with the other.

Jacobson’s original progressive relaxation procedures might take many months or even years to learn, but Joseph Wolpe (1958) developed a short form for these procedures that included verbal suggestions to relax. This abbreviated form can be mastered in a matter of days or weeks. Wolpe made this streamlined version a part of his systematic desensitization protocol for the treatment of phobias. He found that once they relaxed, clients were more capable of tolerating and responding adaptively to situations they were afraid of.


Many people do not know which of their muscles are chronically tense. When you practice progressive relaxation, you focus on the sensations of tension in one particular muscle group at a time. Then, when you release that tension, you focus on the sensations of relaxation in that same muscle group. You move progressively through your whole body from one muscle group to the next, repeating this procedure. Using progressive relaxation techniques, you learn to identify particular muscle groups and to distinguish between the sensations of tension and deep relaxation.

Progressive relaxation can be practiced lying down or seated in a chair. Each muscle group is tensed from five to seven seconds and then released and relaxed for twenty to thirty seconds. These lengths of time are simply rules of thumb and don’t have to be slavishly adhered to. This procedure is repeated at least once. If a particular muscle is difficult to relax, you can practice tensing and releasing it up to five times.

Once the procedure is familiar enough to be remembered, keep your eyes closed and focus your attention on just one muscle group at a time. Another option is to purchase a professional recording such as the one listed in the Recording section of this chapter.

The instructions for progressive relaxation are divided into two sections. The first part deals with the basic procedure, which you may wish to record and replay while practicing. If you do record these instructions, be sure to pause long enough for tensing and relaxing. The second section offers a shorthand procedure that shortens the procedure by simultaneously tensing and relaxing many muscles at one time, so that deep muscle relaxation can be achieved in a very brief time period.

Basic Procedure
The basic procedure will familiarize you with the muscles in your body that are most commonly tense, and will help you learn how to release the tension.

  1. Get into a comfortable position in a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed. You may want to loosen your clothing and remove your shoes. Begin to relax as you take a few slow, deep breaths.
  2. Now as you let the rest of your body relax, clench your fists and bend them back at the wrist… tighter and tighter… feel the tension in your fists and forearms… Now relax… Feel the looseness in your hands and forearms… Notice the contrast with the tension… (If you have time, repeat this, and all succeeding procedures, at least one more time.)
  3. Now bend your elbows and tense your biceps… Tense them as hard as you can and observe the feeling of tautness… Let your hands drop down and relax… Feel that difference…
  4. Turn your attention to your head and wrinkle your forehead as tight as you can… Feel the tension in your forehead and scalp. Now relax and smooth it out. Imagine your entire forehead and scalp becoming smooth and at rest…
  5. Now frown and notice the strain spreading throughout your forehead… Let go. Allow your brow to become smooth again…
  6. Squeeze your eyes closed… tighter… Relax your eyes. Let them remain closed gently and comfortably…
  7. Now, open your mouth wide and feel the tension in your jaw… Relax your jaw… When your jaw is relaxed, your lips will be slightly parted. Notice the contrast between tension and relaxation…
  8. Now press your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Experience the strain in the back of your mouth… Relax…
  9. Press your lips now, purse them into an “O”… Relax your lips… Feel the relaxation in your forehead, scalp, eyes, jaw, tongue, and lips… Let go more and more…
  10. Now roll your head slowly around on your neck, feeling the point of tension shifting as your head moves… and then slowly roll your head the other way. Relax, allowing your head to return to a comfortable upright position…
  11. Now shrug your shoulders, bring your shoulders up toward your ears… hold it… Drop your shoulders back down and feel the relaxation spreading through your neck, throat, and shoulders… pure relaxation, deeper and deeper…
  12. Now breathe in and fill your lungs completely. Hold your breath. Experience the tension… Now exhale and let your chest become loose… Continue relaxing, letting your breath come freely and gently… Notice the tension draining out of your muscles with each exhalation…
  13. Next, tighten your stomach and hold. Feel the tension… Relax… Now place your hand on your stomach. Breathe deeply into your stomach, pushing your hand up. Hold… and relax. Feel the sensations of relaxation as the air rushes out…
  14. Now arch your back, without straining. Keep the rest of your body as relaxed as possible. Focus on the tension in your lower back… Now relax… Let the tension dissolve away.
  15. Tighten your buttocks and thighs… Relax and feel the difference…
  16. Now straighten and tense your legs and curl your toes downward. Experience the tension… Relax…
  17. Straighten and tense your legs and bend your toes toward your face. Experience the tension… Relax.
  18. Feel the comfortable warmth and heaviness of deep relaxation throughout your entire body as you continue to breathe slowly and deeply…
  19. You can relax even more as you move up through your body, letting go of the last bit of tension in your body. Relax your feet… relax your ankles… relax your calves… relax your shins… relax your knees… relax your thighs… relax your buttocks… Let the relaxation spread to your stomach… to your lower back… to your chest… Let go more and more. Feel the relaxation deepening in your shoulders… in your arms… and in your hands… Deeper and deeper. Notice the feeling of looseness and relaxation in your neck… your jaw… your face… and your scalp…
  20. Continue to breathe slowly and deeply. Your entire body is comfortably loose and relaxed, calm, and rested.

Shorthand Procedure
Once you have mastered the basic procedure, use the following procedure to relax your muscles quickly. In this procedure, whole muscle groups are simultaneously tensed and then relaxed. As before, repeat each procedure at least once, tensing each muscle group from five to seven seconds and then relaxing from fifteen to thirty seconds. Remember to notice the contrast between the sensations of tension and relaxation.

  1. Curl both fists, tightening biceps and forearms (Charles Atlas pose). Relax.
  2. Roll your head around on your neck clockwise in a complete circle, then reverse. Relax.
  3. Wrinkle up the muscles of your face like a walnut: forehead wrinkled, eyes squinted, mouth opened, and shoulders hunched. Relax.
  4. Arch your shoulders back as you take a deep breath into your chest. Hold. Relax.
  5. Take a deep breath, pushing out your stomach. Hold. Relax.
  6. Straighten your legs and point your toes back toward your face, tightening your shins. Hold. Relax.
  7. Straighten your legs and curl your toes, simultaneously tightening your calves, thighs, and buttocks. Relax.

Special Considerations

  • If you make a recording of the basic procedure to facilitate your relaxation program, remember to space each procedure so that enough time is allocated to experience the tension and relaxation before going on to the next muscle or muscle group.
  • As with all relaxation techniques, regular practice of progressive relaxation will enhance the speed and depth of your relaxation.
  • Be extra cautious when tensing your neck and back, because excessive tightening can result in muscle or spinal damage. Also, over-tightening your toes or feet can result in muscle cramping.
  • People new to this technique sometimes make the error of relaxing tension gradually. This slow-motion release of tension may look relaxed, but it actually requires sustained tension. When you release the tension in a particular muscle, let it go instantly; let your muscles become suddenly limp.
  • Although initially you will learn progressive relaxation in a quiet place, eventually you will be able to use at least a shortened version of it anytime during the day when you notice you are tense.


This video shows a 6-minute progressive muscle relaxation. This video does not match the steps described above. It’s included here as a demonstration of how to tense and relax your muscles.


The text on this page was excerpted from The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook written by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and Patrick Fanning, and published by New Harbinger Press. This is an excellent resource for anyone seeking practical strategies for reducing stress and cultivating a more peaceful life. You can purchase this book by clicking on the image below.

From the publisher: “This book has been awarded The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Self-Help Seal of Merit — an award bestowed on outstanding self-help books that are consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles and that incorporate scientifically tested strategies for overcoming mental health difficulties. Used alone or in conjunction with therapy, our books offer powerful tools readers can use to jump-start changes in their lives.”