After a year and a half of living through a pandemic, it’s no wonder that our mental health is suffering and we're struggling to get a good night’s sleep. As somebody who already suffered from bad anxiety before Coronavirus, now restrictions are unlocking and life goes back to normal a little – my anxiety is worse than ever, causing me to have sleepless nights, which put simply, isn't really much fun at all.
Tossing and turning most nights with anxious thoughts ticking around in our heads is something that most of us are familiar with, but something that can aid us with sleeping more soundly and helping to keep anxiety at bay, is Progressive Muscle Relaxation – also known as PMR.
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What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)?
Julie Leonard, a life coach who has over 30 years of experience in psychology, says that progressive muscle relaxation is a method to release stress and tension from the body. It's a deep relaxation technique that can be used to control stress, anxiety, insomnia, and in some cases chronic pain.
Julie believes that PMR is a “simple but effective way to calm you down,” as it means you’re “focusing your mind and body in the present moment” which stops us ruminating or worrying about the 'what if’s'.
“[PMR] is great for anyone as a preventative health, however, research shows it is extremely effective in treating anxiety, stress, and sleep issues," she adds.
It has been reported that doctors have used progressive muscle relaxation in combination with other medicinal treatments for relief from pain relating to cancer and headaches, with it also working well on high blood pressure and digestive issues.
How do you do it?
Here's how to practice PMR, according to Julie:
- Lie down in a quiet room and make yourself comfortable, or get into bed if you're going to sleep.
- Focus on your breaths, tensing a set of muscles as you inhale slowly – clenching your fists, for example.
- As you breathe out, relax the muscles.
- Relax for 15-20 seconds, breathing deeply, paying attention to how your muscles feel before and after.
- Move on to the next muscle group, such as your thighs.
Julie loves to practice PMR as part of a guided meditation, “so I don’t have to think about which part of my body I should relax next,” she tells us, ”I can give all my attention to my breath and tensing and relaxing my muscles. Some ways to enhance the technique are to breathe so that you can hear the sound of your breath rhythmically, like the sound of the waves rolling in and out".
Julie recommends making an event out of this calming ritual, by setting the scene with essential oils. “I burn frankincense and sweet orange that are fantastic for meditation and calming the mind".
How does PMR aid anxiety?
“It stimulates the relaxation response,” Julie says, “an innate response that is the opposite of the stress response".
Julie explains how we often tense our muscles in our jaw, shoulders and hands, which can lead to headaches, muscle pain and backaches too. When practicing PMR you focus on breathing while releasing tension in our muscles. “When we are focusing on our breath and relaxing our muscles, our mind is diverted from the overthinking part of the brain where our anxious thoughts are and we are distracted from the anxiety and we instead focus on relaxing".
Does it *really* work?
Blogger and writer Lisa opened up to GLAMOUR about her experience with PMR. “I find it really helpful,” she said, “having to take time out to concentrate on each set of muscles means your mind can't wander. It's very mindful. Tensing and relaxing the muscles, in turn, dampens the physically held stress in my body. It helps me switch off at the end of the day.”
Lisa was recommended PMR by a mental health nurse during a “particularly bad episode of anxiety. I was sceptical at first thinking it couldn’t possibly help but after trying it a time or two I found it really very helpful to ease the symptoms of anxiety both mentally and physically.”
She continued: “You can’t think bad thoughts whilst you are actively doing it and the tensing and relaxing of the muscles is really calming physically it gives you a feeling similar to what you get after a massage".
Lisa still uses the PMR technique if her anxiety takes over and she can’t sleep, “It’s easy for your mind to race when trying to get to sleep so doing PMR settles you down and puts you in a better position to be able to fall asleep".
If your feelings of anxiety feel overwhelming and you'd like some advice, visit mind.org.uk or speak to your GP.