Progressive muscle relaxation is a simple relaxation strategy. It involves tightening groups of muscles for a brief period of time, then follow by relaxing the same group of muscles. I always recommend taking slow, deep breaths as part of this exercise, as it helps yield the best results.

Typically this skill is taught in a progressive manner; meaning to start at the feet and gradually move towards the head. For younger children, I recommend grouping larger sections of the body together to help keep their focus on the exercise. For very young children, I simplify the exercise by skipping the progression throughout the body and instead teach them how to squeeze their entire body at the same time. Sometimes, I tell children to envision their body liked a piece of uncooked spaghetti – rigid, stiff and straight. The goal of this exercise is to change their body from feeling like uncooked spaghetti into a cooked piece of spaghetti – all loose and relaxed.

What can progressive muscle relaxation help with?
Muscle relaxation is one of the primary relaxation skills that I teach most often. It can be helpful while treating anxiety, sleep disruption, hyperactivity, and anger management.

Muscle relaxation can shorten the duration and reduce the intensity of panic attacks. It has been shown to help people ease towards sleep. It can be effective in anger management, used as a tool to help regain control over the body while simultaneously releasing physical tension.

Some people report a reduction in their day to day tensions often experienced in their body – think muscle tension, headaches, and belly aches.

As always, for coping and relaxation skills to be most effective they have to be practiced. I encourage people to try this daily (bedtime is a popular choice). You want to practice this when you are feeling fine, not wait until you are in the middle of a panic attack. Progressive muscle relaxation creates muscle memory – the more you practice it when you are feeling fine, the more natural it will feel and effective it will be when you are using it when distressed.

Here are basic directions to try muscle relaxation at home:

  • Find a comfortable space to sit or lay down. Avoid crossing your legs or arms. You can either close your eyes or keep them open, however, you feel most comfortable.
  • In between each muscle group breathe in through the nose as if you are sniffing a flower, and exhale through the mouth as if you are blowing out a candle. As you are breathing in think of calm thoughts, as you are exhaling envision stress/discomfort leaving your body and mind.
  1. Tighten feet by curling toes under, then count down from 5 (5, 4, 3, 2, 1) and suddenly release muscle tension. Focus on the warmth & relaxation in your muscles. Take 3 breaths.
  2. Tighten legs (calves & thighs), then count down from 5. Take 3 breaths.
  3. Tighten stomach and buttocks, then count down from 5. Take 3 breaths.
  4. Tighten chest by taking a large breath in and holding for 5 seconds, then exhale. Take 3 slow breaths.
  5. Clench fists, tighten forearms, and biceps. Then count down from 5. Take 3 breaths.
  6. Tighten shoulders and neck by trying to lift shoulders to ears. Then count down from 5. Take 3 breaths.
  7. Squeeze your eyes closed while tightening facial muscles. Then count down from 5. Take 3 breaths.
  8. Tighten your entire body simultaneously. Then count down from 5. Take 3 breaths.

For very young children, try the “spaghetti” technique:

  1. Squeeze your entire body as tight as you can, count down from 5 and suddenly release muscle tension. Focus on the warmth and relaxation of your muscles.
  2. Take 3 slow breaths
  3. Repeat squeezing of entire body 3 to 5 times in total, with slow breaths in between each time.

If you have any additional questions about this technique or other behavioral health topics, please call our office!

Thank you, 
Annie Gray, LICSW
Behavioral Health ConsultantWestwood-Mansfield Pediatric Associates 
“Proactive in your child’s care. Empowering families for over 65 years.”