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The Skill of Chilling Out Part 2: Picking Your Practice

In last week’s blog we spent time looking at the neurology of relaxation and the emerging research on how relaxation practices influence activity in multiple areas of the nervous system. If you skipped that article, make sure to go back and check it out (here insert link) before you dive into this week’s info.

In our professional courses we teach two distinct practices (PMR & AT) focused on developing the skill of deliberate relaxation. We do this to emphasize the fact that not all relaxation approaches are created equal, as different approaches impact different areas of the nervous system. Practically, this means that a targeted relaxation approach based on an individual’s distinct needs often is markedly more effective. 

With that introduction let’s dive into the two relaxation techniques that we recommend and teach: Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) and Autogenic Training (AT). While these two approaches share the common goal of inducing a state of calmness and well-being they differ in their approach, focus, application, and impact on the nervous system.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR):

  • PMR is a relaxation technique developed by Edmund Jacobson in the early 20th century.
  • PMR primarily targets the physical aspect of relaxation, aiming to reduce muscle tension and promote physical calmness.
  • PMR can also be used to increase body awareness, reduce pain, and enhance movement performance.
  • PMR is particularly beneficial for individuals experiencing musculoskeletal issues such as headaches, back pain, general muscle tension, loss of mobility and stiffness.
  • PMR is also often used as a complementary therapy for conditions like anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain.
  • The process of PMR begins with focusing on one muscle group at a time, typically starting from the feet and progressing upwards through the body. Individuals intentionally tense the muscles in each group for a few seconds before releasing the tension and allowing the muscles to relax completely while focusing on the sensation.
  • For best results, practitioners typically use recorded instructions so that focus can remain on the activity itself and not stopping to read instructions.
  • PMR is relatively easy to learn and can be mastered with regular practice. Individuals can quickly grasp the technique’s mechanics and apply it in their daily lives for relaxation.

Autogenic Training (AT):

  • AT is a self-relaxation technique that combines self-suggestion and imagery to induce a state of relaxation and well-being. It was developed by Johannes Heinrich Schultz in the early 20th century.
  • AT focuses on both the physical and mental aspects of relaxation.
  • AT is often utilized as a stress reduction technique and may be beneficial for individuals looking to enhance their mind-body connection, emotional self-awareness, and self-regulation as well as in reducing anxiety and overactive stress responses.
  • AT focuses on achieving a sensation of warmth and heaviness in specific parts of the body, such as the arms and legs, through self-directed mental imagery and suggestions.
  • The practitioner mentally repeats phrases related to warmth, heaviness, and calmness, allowing the body to respond to these autogenic cues and enter a state of deep relaxation.
  • Compared to PMR, AT involves a more passive approach, using imagery and mentally repeated phrases without engaging in physical movements.
  • Experientially, AT often involves a longer learning process compared to PMR due to the reliance on self-suggestion and mental imagery. As a result, AT may take longer to internalize and apply effectively.

While both techniques are incredibly valuable, the above distinctions provide a map for understanding how to choose the best approach for yourself and your clients. In our professional training courses, we summarize this information in this way:

  • If your clients are new to relaxation practices, start with PMR. 
  • If the issues are primarily musculoskeletal and/or movement-related it also makes sense to focus on learning PMR.
  • If the issues are more emotionally driven or clients have a difficult time with managing their stress responses, then AT can often be a more effective approach.

Most clients can develop a useful level of relaxation skill in PMR with 2-4 weeks of practice, while AT training can take 3-6 months to fully work through each component of the process. In both cases, 10-20 minutes of practice 4 -7 times per week is the goal. 

While this may seem like a big commitment, it is vital to remember that relaxation is not a birthright – it’s a skill that must be practiced and mastered. And, after 3 decades of work in the movement field we believe it’s one of the most valuable skills you can master as the results of regular practice are life-changing! 

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