Over the last two weeks we’ve looked closely at Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Autogenic Training, both of which are well-researched practices for developing your relaxation skills and the myriad benefits that go along with doing so. We’ve also looked at the science around how these two approaches impact the brain and body differently: information that you can use to help guide YOUR choice about what skills to practice and teach to your clients.
To make this even more practical, this week we’re going to share with you the basic practice instructions for both PMR and AT so that you can get started on building your skills immediately.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
As a reminder, PMR is a relatively simple technique that involves systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in the body to induce a state of deep relaxation. Here are the basic steps:
- Find a Quiet Space: Choose a quiet and comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed during your practice. You can sit in a comfortable chair or lie down on a mat or bed.
- Take Deep Breaths: Take a few deep breaths to center yourself and relax. Inhale slowly through your nose, hold the breath for a moment, and then exhale slowly through your nose or mouth. Use these breaths to calm your mind and prepare your body for the relaxation exercises.
- Start with Your Feet: Begin your PMR session starting at your feet. Focus on one foot at a time. Curl your toes tightly (but not to the point of discomfort or shaking) and hold for 5-10 seconds, feeling the tension in your foot. Then, release the tension and let your foot completely relax. Take a moment to notice the contrast between the tension and relaxation. One of the easiest ways to do this is to make mental comparison between what you feel in the foot that was working versus the foot that was not involved. Repeat that same process on the opposite foot. Return to your original working foot but this time spread and extend your toes as you pull them up toward your knee. Again, hold for 5-10 seconds and then relax and notice the contrast.
- Move Up the Body: Continue the process of tensing and relaxing through each muscle group. Progressively move up your body, from your calves to your thighs, buttocks, abdomen, chest, arms, shoulders, neck, and finally your face and forehead. When you are working on your arms and legs, it is often most beneficial to work on one side at a time, just like we described above. However, if you are in a time crunch you can also try to work on both limbs at the same time.
- Breathe and Visualize: As you tense and relax each muscle group, take slow, deep breaths. With each exhalation, release any remaining tension. You can also visualize the tension melting away as you relax.
- Maintain Focus: During the practice, maintain your focus on the specific muscle group you are working on. Try to isolate that muscle group and avoid tensing other parts of your body simultaneously.
- Stay Mindful: Be mindful of the sensations you experience during the exercises. Notice the contrast between tension and relaxation in each muscle group.
- Practice Regularly: Aim for at least 10-20 minutes of practice per session, a few times per week.
- Use Guided Recordings: If you find it challenging to remember the muscle groups or maintain focus during practice, consider using guided PMR recordings or smartphone apps. These recordings provide step-by-step instructions and can help you stay focused and relaxed throughout the session. One of our favorites is called PMR Pro.
- End with Deep Breaths: Once you have completed the relaxation exercises for all muscle groups, take a few deep breaths and try to focus on maintaining your new level of relaxation as you start moving again.
If you remember from the previous blogs, Autogenic Training (AT) is a self-relaxation technique that combines self-suggestion and imagery. It is considered a slightly more passive approach to PMR and can take a bit longer to learn. AT practice involves repeating specific phrases related to warmth, heaviness, and calmness while focusing on specific body sensations. Here are the basic steps:
- Find a Quiet and Comfortable Space: Choose a quiet and comfortable place where you can practice without distractions. You can sit or lie down in a relaxed position.
- Take Deep Breaths: Take a few deep breaths to center yourself and relax. Inhale slowly through your nose, hold the breath for a moment, and then exhale slowly through your nose or mouth based on your personal preference.
- Focus on Warmth and Heaviness: Focus your attention on one specific body part, such as your right hand. Repeat to yourself a phrase related to warmth and heaviness, such as “My right hand is warm and heavy.” As you mentally repeat this phrase, imagine a sensation of warmth and heaviness spreading through your right hand.
- Use Repetition and Visualization: Continue to repeat the phrase silently in your mind while visualizing the warmth and heaviness in your right hand. Try to immerse yourself in the sensation. It is not unusual to struggle to “feel” these sensations in your first few practice sessions, but don’t let that deter you. The simple practice of doing the work is laying the neural foundations for more profound relaxation as your gain skill.
- Move Through Body Parts: After spending a few minutes focusing on your right hand, move on to the next body part, such as your left hand, and repeat the process with a phrase like “My left hand is warm and heavy.” Continue the process, moving to your arms, legs, feet, and other body parts.
- Incorporate Calmness: In addition to warmth and heaviness, include phrases related to calmness and relaxation, such as ” My body and mind are relaxed.” Use these phrases while focusing on your whole body or specific areas where you may carry tension.
- Practice Regularly: Aim for at least 10-20 minutes of Autogenic Training per session, a few times per week. Consistency is key to experiencing the full benefits of AT.
- Use Guided Recordings: If you find it challenging to remember the phrases or maintain focus during practice, consider using guided AT recordings or smartphone apps. These are more difficult to find for smartphones, but you can find a variety of YouTube videos on the topic. One key in this is to try a sample and make sure the narrator’s voice doesn’t drive you crazy!
- End with Deep Breaths: Once you have completed the AT exercises, take a few deep breaths again to bring yourself back to the present moment. Because AT is designed to not only induce relaxation but also to improve your emotional resilience, pay attention to your overall stress/anxiety levels and notice if they have improved.
From our perspective, the key takeaway from these 3 blogs on relaxation training is that it is a SKILL. And, just like learning to swing a golf club or playing the guitar requires time and effort, “relaxation on demand” is the same. Plan right now to set aside the necessary time and start your practice, as it’s one of the most vital skills you can develop for improving almost every aspect of life.