The Core Principles of Progressive Relaxation.

While preparing our previous post on using breath control to relax, we ran into some technical barriers to uploading one of our relaxation audios to the post. Rather than add delays to uploading the post, we decided to select from the multitude of videos offered on You Tube.

We were aghast to find that almost all of the videos made a fundamental mistake that would likely keep people from developing the awareness of muscular tension that is central to relaxation training in which you deliberately alternate tensing and relaxing carefully attending to and contrasting the two states.

Most of the videos instructed people to tighten muscles very strongly, even “as hard as you can”.

The central idea of progressive relaxation is to become sensitive even to slight amounts of tension and learn to shut that tension off.

Contracting strongly will relax you briefly because it is isometric exercise. It do little to teach you to recognize the tensions of anxiety or to control them.

Progressive Relaxation (PR) was developed by Edmund Jacobsen, an M.D. Ph.D with a strong background in physiological research. He also introduced a newly developed tool, the electromyography, so could measure tension objectively.

Anyone who has observed the direct readings of muscular tension that an EMG provides can tell you that it is common for people to report being totally relaxed when they are still far from it.

The main focus of PR was to learn to recognize muscular tension and how to release it. Jacobson’s technique started with learning to recognize tension when you place your forearm, bottom side down, on a flat surface and then gently point your fingers up toward the ceiling. At a later stage, he even had trainees lift the fingers only a small distance upward. This is far from tensing “as hard as you can”!

He also had trainees go through these procedures progressively, throughout the body until they reached a point where they were aware even of slight amounts of tension and knew how to shut the tension down.

PR has played an important role in many effective stress coping techniques so it’s worthwhile to review its core principles.

Core Principles of Progressive Relaxation

• Normally people cannot identify muscular tension accurately.
• If your brain stops sending your muscles signals to tense, you will be completely relaxed.
• Relaxation is not doing. “Doing” works when you are trying to INITIATE an action to get something done. That creates more muscular tension, which is useful most of the time, but not when you are trying to relax.
• If your muscles stop contracting, you will no longer be psychologically tense. The mind is much more dependent on muscular action than most of us realize.
• You can relax below your “zero point” (the point where, as an untrained person you think you are fully relaxed).
In our experience, really tense people may be utterly oblivious to sensations of tension, because their chronic tenseness becomes their normal “zero point”, and they think that anything below that is deep relaxation.

Where Jacobson Was Right and Where He Was Wrong

Evidence supports the idea that relaxation of muscles is a powerful relaxant of the mind, and Jacobson was right to give it a central place in his training. There has been strong evidence that his method works. It is wise to use relaxation techniques that are consistent with his core principles.

However, there is clear evidence that the mind, including the emotions, continues to function even when skeletal muscles are completely blocked by a drug. The drug used to show this was a refined derivative of curare. Curare is a drug put on the tips of darts by certain South American Indians to kill prey. We now know that it works by blocking the chemical transmitter that enables the nervous system to control the muscles.

During the mid-1940s two anesthesiologists, Frederick Prescott in the UK and Scott Smith in the US independently volunteered to be “guinea pigs” to test the effects of a purified form of curare. Their breathing was maintained mechanically.

They knew it would paralyze their muscles, but wanted to know whether it would also make them unconscious.Some doctors were doing surgery on the assumption that under the influence of the drug patients were unconscious and did not feel pain.

When these two doctors volunteered to be paralyzed by the drug, including high doses, they later reported that their mental processes, including emotions and feelings of distress, persisted. Curare and it’s more refined derivatives should not be used as an anesthetic.

Both had a rapid heartrate and elevated blood pressure. Prescott attributed this to emotion, saying that “… one cannot be paralyzed and remain perfectly tranquil”.

This clearly shows that, though relaxing skeletal muscles helps relax the mind, when the muscles are completely paralyzed, one can react with a loss of “tranquility”.

Progressive Relaxation is an excellent way to relax, but it’s is not a cure-all for distress.


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