Use Muscle Tension to Reduce Stress

November 2020 - Active Lifestyle

One of the most important and often overlooked ways I help clients improve their health, improve their fitness performance, and reduce injury, is to improve sleep. You read that correctly. S-L-E-E-P!

Sleep is a key factor for our overall health, especially when it comes to healing, muscle recovery, and production of healthy hormones to keep us motivated and energized throughout our day. But sleeping, like many things, if oftentimes easier said than done.

One of the major challenges I see affecting my clients’ sleep patterns is increased stress levels. Top contributors increasing stress lately are lifestyle changes, raising young children, over-training, and fluctuations in hormone levels. For many, these issues progress slowly over time, but for others, the shift in our bodies can seem to come overnight.

The problem: stress is normal, and no matter what lifestyle you lead, you cannot run from it. Whether it’s external, internal, or brought on from those sweaty workouts you love, your body reads it all as stress. The solution: teach your body how to move through stress. Why? Because it’s one of the most important ways to improve our overall mental, emotional, and physical health. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is also an excellent way to introduce mindfulness to children and give them a tool to reduce stress, calm their minds, and create healthy body awareness.

How do I reduce negative stress and improve my sleep?
PMR is one of the most effective techniques I have used with my clients and with my personal health program. It is extremely effective in reducing body tension and the psychological stress that affects our muscles—from the top of our heads to the bottoms of our feet. With a simple practice of tensing the muscles in our body, we release tension more effectively. PMR teaches your body how a relaxed muscle feels different from a tense muscle; it can also improve your body’s sense of control over anxiety and stress triggers.

PMR and Relaxation Steps
One thing to note before trying PMR is that you may fall asleep due to the level of relaxation your body will tap into! Plan for this practice before bed or during an afternoon when you’re looking to calm down and clear your mind. Start by finding a peaceful environment free from distractions. Put on comfortable clothes, grab a yoga mat, set a comfortable room temperature, and begin by lying on the floor. Start slowly with 10–15 minute sessions with the first few moments focusing on full belly breathing to allow the body to calm down and the nervous system to settle.

Practice PMR
  1. After a few minutes of deep belly breathing, sit or lie in a way that is comfortable. Unfold your arms and uncross your legs for maximum circulation.
  2. Starting with your face and forehead, squeeze the muscles and hold for 15 seconds. Feel the muscles becoming tighter and tenser. Then slowly release the tension while counting for 30 seconds. Take note of the difference in how your muscles feel as you begin to relax. Continue to allow the tension to release until your forehead and face are completely relaxed. Breathe slowly and repeat this process in your jaw by tensing for 15 seconds and slowly releasing for 30.
  3. One area where we tend to hold a lot of unhealthy tension is our shoulders. Raise your shoulders toward your ears and hold for 15 seconds. Slowly release as you count to 30 and let the tension melt away.
  4. Our wrists can become tense throughout our day, affecting not only hand movements but also moving tension into our arms and neck. Slowly draw both hands into fists, pull them into your chest, and hold for 15 seconds, squeezing as tightly as you can. Slowly release for 30 seconds and take some deep breaths, noticing the tension melting away.
  5. Our glutes not only support our workouts but also offer the stability and strength our bodies need to hold our spine. When our body becomes stressed, one of the most common areas I see clients hold tension is in their glutes, affecting mobility, causing back pain, and harming sleep patterns. Slowly increase the tension in your buttocks for 15 seconds. Then slowly release the muscles and take some deep breaths to allow the upper body and back to continue to release over 30 seconds.
  6. Continue to work your way down your body, legs, feet, and toes with this same 15 seconds of tension and 30 seconds of release.
  7. After making your way through your whole body, take note of areas that still need work and areas that have fully released. 8 Allow full movement to come back into your body with some gentle stretching and deep breathing as you slowly close your practice.

Although PMR takes practice, it’s a skill that can be developed quicker than you may think! Yes, it needs to be planned for, but the effects of releasing the tension you are holding will have your body and mind moving in a positive direction as you begin your sleep, or clear your mind for the day ahead. 

Rachel Doell is an instructor, personal trainer, mother, and wife who loves health and fitness. Her fitness company, Daily Routine Fitness, features simple ways to fit living a healthy life into your everyday routine. | @ dailyroutinefitness

This article was published in The Good Life magazine.

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