“Muscle tension is your body’s way of telling you to chill the F*%K out!”
Anxiety and Progressive Muscle Relaxation Defined
The longer I engage with an array of athletes, including runners, the more stories I hear about the anxiolytic effects of an active lifestyle. Anecdotally, relaxation is the primary reason people get into running, followed by weight loss as a close second.
However, promoting running as the singular coping strategy for anxiety, would be excessively myopic, to say the least. You need many tools in your arsenal to battle this very persistent demon.
One of the most common side effects of anxiety is muscle tension. Anxious before a big race? Feeling dread prior to that next long slow distance run? Then, you are away of the tension such anxieties create. It is interesting to know that many people experience muscle tension as a side effect to anxiety, without ever knowing it.
Does this mean you should first fix your head space? In other words, logic states that if I change the messages I churn in my head, anxiety should then disappear. Although this is one viable solution, a solution that requires a great deal of mental powers and time, focusing on muscle tension is actually a quick and concrete solution to shifting the anxiety experience.
The key to learning to relax is found in each of the major muscle groups in your body. Through a technique called, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), you are not only reducing your perceived level of anxiety, you are also preventing related problems with mood in the distant future.
PMR helps you identify tension, and provides a method to relax each muscle group. The amazing effect is that your mind starts to quiet, likely due to feeling more physically relaxed, and the meditative nature in provides.
There is no one single cause for anxiety. In fact, anxiety actually serves us when you understand anxiety on a continuum. We can experience either zero anxiety to a stressful stimulus, or extreme distress, each opposite ends of our continuum. Both are entirely maladaptive in nature. However, in the middle, the zone often known as “eustress,” is understood as functional. It provides motivation for day-to-day activity.
Looking deeper, distress, can cripple us into absolute reactivity. Distress does have an adaptive place where appropriate, and is actually the root of flight-or-flight, the adrenal driven reaction to fight your way out of a threat, or run away. Think of a monkey rounding the other side of a tree and seeing a tiger face-to-face. The monkey will automatically either punch his way out of this frightening scenario, or try to get the heck out of there. Oddly enough, there is not any measurable degree of decision-making when engaged in adrenal driven flight-or-flight – the monkey simple reacts.
Unfortunately, experiencing zero anxiety is also problematic. If you never experienced any degree of anxiety in life, you would lack urgency, motivation, or a reason to engage in any activity at all. Folks in this situation often have adrenal disorders, a condition that is quite rare.
Encouraging a state of eustress requires that you both see the importance of a particular activity, and also mitigate an overactive adrenal response. How do you do this? Master the art of Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)!
Step 1 – Understand The Basic Sequence
The following two-step exercise is adapted from The Stress Reduction Workbook by Davis, Eshelman, and McKay, (1988), and recommended by Lewinsohn, Antonuccio, Breckenridge, and Teri (1984) in The Coping with Depression Course.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is the process of systematically relaxing a pre-determined series of muscle groups, typically working from head to toe. Each muscle or muscle group is separately tensed for five seconds while breathing in, and then relaxed while breathing out. Work with each muscle group (listed below) in the order indicated. You can repeat the sequence up to five times. However, running through the sequence once typically does the trick!
You will tense and relax four major muscle groups in the following order. Remember to breathe:
- Hands, forearms, and biceps.
- Head, face, throat and shoulders, including concentration on forehead, cheeks, nose, eye, jaws, lips, tongue and neck.
- Chest, stomach, and lower back.
- Thighs, buttocks, calves, and feet.
You may also find it useful to say or think the following relaxation phrases while practicing. It is helpful to say this on each exhale of the exercise:
- “Let go of the tension.”
- “Throw away the tension‑ I am calm and rested.”
- “Relax and smooth out the muscles.”
- “Let the tension dissolve away.”
Step 2 – Relaxation Put To Practice
Once you can remember the sequence of muscles above, and the preferred mantra above, get in a comfortable position and breathe. Pick a quite place without interruption. Keep your eyes closed and focus attention on just one muscle group at a time. Now, moderately tense the first muscle group (start with the hands, forearms, and biceps), noticing the experience of tension as you do. Keep the muscle group tightened as you focus on the tension experience. Now let go of the muscle group. Relax, letting your breath go at the same time. Feel the looseness in the muscles and notice how the new sensations contrast with the previous tension. Repeat this procedure going through each muscle group, always noticing how the sensations of relaxation differs from those of tension.
Practice PMR for 15 minutes twice a day. Keep a record of your practice. Summarize what you did, the challenges you encountered, and sensations you noticed, both prior to and after the activity. If you are reluctant to practice on a daily basis, run the PMR procedure prior to your next long run. Make a note of both reactions and abreactions.
Must Read – Coping With Depression and Anxiety