Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Simple and Effective

Stress is a normal part of life, but chronic stress threatens hard-won sobriety and greatly increases the risk of relapse. This is why most drug and alcohol treatment centers and rehabs encourage clients to learn relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga.

No single relaxation technique works for everybody. Some people combat stress with deep breathing techniques while others benefit more from biofeedback, rhythmic exercise or therapeutic journaling. Most become more effective with practice, and the payoff is improved mental and physical wellbeing.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a simple technique that works for many people. It is easy to learn and requires no expensive lessons or special equipment. The technique, devised and perfected by Dr. Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s, involves tightening and relaxing specific muscle groups in sequence.

Learning Progressive Muscle Relaxation


Set aside about 15 minutes per session. Don’t wait until you feel stressed; the exercises are easier to learn when you are calm. Sit in a comfortable chair or recliner and remove your shoes. Dim the lighting and turn off computers, television and phones.

To begin, take two deep breaths and exhale slowly. Don’t hold your breath. Then, proceed as follows:

General Steps

  1. Take a deep breath.

  2. Gently tighten each muscle group as outlined in the sequence below.

  3. Hold the tension for about 5 seconds.

  4. Relax the muscles for about 10 seconds.

  5. Move to the next muscle group in the sequence.


  • Hand and forearms – Tense fingers and relax, then clench fists and relax — one hand at a time.
  • Upper arms – Tense one bicep by pulling your fist forward towards your shoulder to “make a muscle,” hold and relax. Repeat with the other bicep.
  • Shoulders – Hunch your shoulders. Hold and relax.
  • Shoulder blades and upper back – Extend your chest and pull your shoulder blades together. Hold and relax.
  • Cheeks and eyes – Close your eyes tightly. Hold and relax. Open your eyes as wide as you can. Hold and relax.
  • Forehead – Raise your eyebrows as high as you can. Hold and relax.
  • Mouth – Open your mouth wide like you are yawning. Hold and relax.
  • Tongue – Press your tongue into the root of your mouth. Hold and relax. Press your tongue into the bottom of your mouth. Hold and relax.
  • Neck – Look straight ahead and pull your shoulder up towards your ears. Hold and relax.
  • Stomach and chest – Breathe deeply; fill your lungs with air. Hold and relax.
  • Buttocks and hips – Squeeze the muscles in your buttocks. Hold and relax.
  • Right thigh – Tighten your right thigh muscles. Hold and relax.
  • Right calf – Slowly curl your toes up. Hold and relax.
  • Right foot – Curl your toes down. Hold and relax.
  • Left thigh – Same as for right thigh.
  • Left calf – Same as for right calf.
  • Left foot – Same as for right foot.

There are various ways to perform Progressive Muscle Relaxation, and books or CDs may be helpful. The key, however, is to tense muscle groups one at a time, paying careful attention to how your muscles feel when you relax them. With practice, you will eventually learn to recognize muscle tension and attain a state of relaxation very quickly.

Here is a short illustrated description of the technique, there are also shorter forms available (3-5 minutes):

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