Progressive Muscle Relaxation can be a useful tool to accomplish two goals:
Helping the muscles of the body to release tension, which can directly reduce physical pain
Helping us come back into the experience of sensations in our bodies, which can help the brain to send more pain relieving signals
In order to try a Body Scan / PMR exercise for yourself, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, whichever you expect to be more relaxing and less likely to increase your pain. It may be helpful to record yourself reading this at a slow pace and playing the recording for yourself as you follow these simple steps. The sound of our own voices can be quite healing.
Once you and your body feel settled, pick a spot somewhere between the wall and ceiling in front of you, at about 45 degrees.
Next, take a few gentle breaths, in through your nose…….. and out through your mouth. There is no need to breathe at any particular pace or depth, so long as you’re focusing on the breath moving in through your nose and out through your mouth. After a few such breaths, allow your breathing to slow just a little bit by extending your “out breath” to be just a little longer than you’re “in breath”.
Once this feels comfortable, you can gently allow your eyes to close if they have not already. PMR is an extension of a “body scan”, but with more focus on guiding the body toward relaxation. Over the next few minutes, you will cover each section of your body in sequence, and you may do so top-down (from head to toe) or bottom-up (beginning with your toes and moving up toward your shoulders, neck, and head). In this exercise, we’ll move from head to toe as this tends to be slightly more “grounding” for most people. If any area of your body feels too uncomfortable or tender, you may choose to skip this area altogether and instead spend more time in areas that feel good right now. When you find those areas, notice them and allow yourself to feel them completely. Allow that feeling, in these areas, to spread in all directions, if it will.
Now, to begin……focus your attention on the muscles of your jaw, perhaps moving your mouth and jaw slightly to “activate” those muscles and to more easily notice them. Get a sense of how this part of your body “feels” and simply take note of that sensation. Whatever you feel is right for this moment. Once you’ve had a moment to acknowledge this feeling, see if you can alter it for just a moment by clenching the muscles of your jaw…… for just a second or two….. until you allow that tension to release. Noticing the contrast in sensation between clenching and relaxation, you may choose to do so a few times to really get a sense of how it feels different……notice the contrast in how this area feels. Many people hold tension in their physical bodies, and for some the most common area is the jaw. Once you’ve had a chance to notice the difference in sensation between tension and relaxation in this part of your body, allow it to ease and relax just one more time.
Next, move up to the muscles around your eyes and perform the same technique, ending with a feeling of relaxation and release once more. During this process, as you move through different body areas, it is helpful to continue to breathe gently, in through your nose and out through your mouth.
After the area around your eyes, move up toward the muscles of your forehead and scalp. The process is the same for each body area, spending as much time in each as feels right in the moment. Spending enough time, though, to:
Notice how the area feels, without judgment or trying to understand what that feeling means
Contract the area for a few moments
Release this tension, and notice the difference in sensation
Stay relaxed as you move to the next body area
In this same way, allow your focus to move down to your neck……… and now your shoulders……and now your chest and abdomen. Noticing, clenching gently, and then releasing. Moving now to your back….your upper back……then slowly your lower back. Noticing…..clenching….releasing…..noticing once again.
Continuing the process at the pace that feels most comfortable to you, moving down to your hips…..and your thighs……moving past your knee to your lower leg……the muscle around your ankles, and now your feet.
If you’d like, you may choose to do the same now in reverse, at any pace that feels comfortable. What is most important in these few minutes or even brief moments is to simply be with your body. To notice it, and allow it to speak to you as it needs. Reducing tension can directly reduce pain. Use this as a tool as often as is helpful.
Note: for some people, Progressive Relaxation (as opposed to Progressive Muscle Relaxation) may be helpful, as drawing attention to clenching painful muscles may still be too difficult. If you find yourself in this situation, simply skip the “clenching” step and instead: