Muscle relaxation might be something you associate with a deep tissue massage – something to treat yourself with occasionally before shouldering life’s stresses once again.
In reality, muscle relaxation isn’t a rare indulgence but something you can do every single day – no matter how busy your schedule – for free, and without even leaving the house.
What’s more – muscle relaxation holds serious benefits for both body and mind.
What do we mean when we talk about muscle relaxation?
During the course of our daily lives, our muscles tense and contract constantly. Whether we’re lifting a heavy bag, hunching over a laptop or taking a shower, our muscles are always working.
When we are stressed or anxious, muscles also become tense more easily. Have you ever noticed how your toes might curl during an awkward moment? This is a physical manifestation of mental stress.
Chronic stress leads to tense muscles – especially around the shoulders, back and neck. If your muscles often feel hard, knotty and tight, it’s likely you’ve been involuntarily tensing them so frequently, they’re locked into a tense position.
What are the benefits of muscle relaxation?
Fewer aches and pains
If you’re under stress for prolonged periods (also known as chronic stress) it can affect your muscles. Muscles remain semi-contracted and don’t fully release. Tense muscles lead to pain and stiffness throughout the body.
Extremely tense muscles might spasm and can lead to trapped nerves – signs of this include numbness and tingling in the fingers or toes.
When we’re anxious, our body tenses up as part of our natural fight-or-flight mechanism. 1
People prone to anxiety often have a more difficult time physically relaxing, and their state of constant muscle contraction can trigger more anxiety as the person feels wound-up and tense.
Luckily, taking time for muscle relaxation can help ease anxiety.
If you’ve ever had a professional massage, you’ll know how sleepy they can make you feel. That’s because when our muscles relax – so does our mind.
If you have trouble switching off at night, practicing progressive muscle relaxation in bed might be the answer.
Progressive muscle relaxation may help you fall asleep faster and give you a more restful night.2
Many of us are prone to headaches during stressful times. A leading cause of headaches is muscle tension in the back, neck, shoulders and head.
Consciously relaxing your muscles on a regular basis can offer relief from tension headaches.
How can I relax my body tension?
Massage, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation are all great ways to relieve body tension.
Progressive muscle relaxation is gathering attention as a technique that’s easy, free and can be done almost anywhere.
How do you relax your muscles?
Progressive muscle relaxation involves consciously clenching individual muscle groups for a few seconds, before unclenching them while exhaling hard. This causes the muscles to relax beyond their previous state as you visualise the tension leaving the body.
Deep breathing exercises, auditory prompts and mental visualisations are often used alongside muscle relaxation techniques to help the person relax deeply and get a better result. The practice of muscle relaxation is sometimes interlinked with meditation – but it’s up to you where your mind goes during a session.
Guided relaxation audio clips are widely available for free online.
These will help guide you through the different muscle groups, instructing you to tense and release in stages across your whole body.
How to perform progressive muscle relaxation
In a quiet place, such as on a bed, carpeted floor or in a chair, make yourself comfortable.
You don’t need to sit or lie in any special way, but make sure your legs are uncrossed and your arms aren’t folded.
In terms of the muscle groups, you can choose where to begin. We suggest starting at the toes and working your way up your body to the head.
Take a slow, deep breath. Allow your stomach to rise as you pull the air into the centre of your body. As you do so, clench your toes and feet as hard you as can without it hurting.
Then, exhale quickly through your mouth with an ‘uhhh’ sound while relaxing your toes at the same time. Your body will feel like it has sunk and relaxed slightly into the surface below you.
Visualise tension leaving your body as you exhale.
Keep the parts of the body you’re not using as still as possible.
Then, repeat this step with your next muscle group, as follows:
- Toes and feet
- Upper arms
When you finish the exercise, you should feel a little heavy in your limbs. This is a sign that you’ve done it right. Your muscles should be feeling relaxed and you may feel sleepy.
Do this exercise each night before bed, or whenever you have 15 minutes undisturbed.
Last Updated: 23rd December 2020
Author: Bhupesh Panchal, Regulatory Affairs
Bhupesh started his career as a clinical toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products. After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.
In his spare time, Bhupesh likes to cycle and has been learning to speak Korean for several years.