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How Progressive Muscle Relaxation Can Help You Sleep Better

by BetterSleep
Sep 10 • 4 min read

Do you find it difficult to get the stresses of the day out of your head at bedtime? Do you struggle with anxiety and worry? Do they keep you up at night? Anxiety and stress are common barriers to sleep, and progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is an easy, effective way to manage them.

What Is PMR?

Progressive muscle relaxation is not new. It was first introduced in the early 1900s by Dr. Edmund Jacobson. In fact, PMR is often called Jacobson’s relaxation technique. He developed the strategy to help patients struggling with anxiety.

The idea is to tense and then relax muscles, one at a time, to relieve stress and soothe anxiety and worry. While Dr. Jacobson created this exercise specifically for anxiety, it is now often used to manage insomnia as well.

How to Do It

The simple idea behind PMR is to tense or contract muscles and then relax them. Here are some easy steps to get you started:

  • Focus on one muscle or part of the body. It doesn’t matter where you start.
  • Contract that muscle while breathing in for about five seconds.
  • Don’t tense the muscle to the point of causing pain.
  • Exhale and quickly relax the muscle.
  • Repeat for all muscles and areas of the body.

You may find initially that it helps to have a voice guiding you and keeping you focused. Try the PMR audio track on the BetterSleep app to take you through some specific exercises. This session is designed to get you ready for sleep by focusing on tensing and relaxing muscles to eliminate stress and lower anxiety.

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How does PMR Improve Sleep?

PMR really does work. According to anxiety, stress, and insomnia research, people who use any type of PMR to relax fall asleep more easily and sleep longer. So how does it work?

Stressors and anxiety trigger the stress response in the body. This is the hormonal reaction that primes you for “fight or flight.” It’s a state of heightened awareness and alertness. The more you experience it, the harder it is to relax and sleep.

So if you struggle with anxiety, or even just ordinary stress, any strategy that can bring your body back to the relaxation response will provide relief. In a state of relaxation, your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing slow down. You’ll feel calmer and have an easier time drifting to sleep. Progressive muscle relaxation relieves anxiety and therefore insomnia.

Another way PMR may help improve sleep is by taking your mind away from intrusive thoughts. By focusing on your muscles, you can calm and slow those racing thoughts that tend to overwhelm you at night.

Mastering Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Once you get comfortable with tensing and relaxing individual muscles and small groups, you can progress to the next level. First, work on tensing and relaxing larger groups of muscles all together: feet and legs; arms and shoulders; chest and stomach; back and neck. This allows you to get to a relaxed state faster.

Eventually you can progress to relaxation only. Practicing PMR regularly will give you a good sense of what tight muscles feel like. Now when you feel anxious and tense you can pinpoint and relax specific muscles. With practice, a release only strategy can be as effective as progressive tensing and relaxing. To do it, you simply relax the muscles that are tense, rather than progressively contracting and then relaxing muscles.

Practice Makes Perfect

Relaxation techniques like PMR are not quick fixes or miracle cures for anxiety or insomnia. Like many things, it takes practice to get the best results. Try progressive relaxation every night before bed to make it a habit and to get better at it. Think of it as a type of athletic training. Before long, anxiety and worries will be much less overwhelming and quality sleep easier to achieve.

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