Muscle tension is another one of those body sensations that produces a negative feedback loop. Adrenaline tends to tighten muscles. The sensation of tense muscles makes you feel, well, tense. The feeling of tension increases psychological stress.
Of course, you can relax by getting a massage or soaking in a hot tub. Both are great and work well, but you can only do them once in awhile. We need something you can do much more often.
Edmund Jacobson created a practice known as Progressive Relaxation back in the 1920s. Jacobson reasoned that since tension accompanies anxiety, you might be able to reduce anxiety by learning to relax the tension. You could, in other words, reduce psychological tension by reducing physical tension. It was a revolutionary idea in its time. He thought that muscular tension might even cause anxiety and that contracted, tight muscles were actually at the root of many emotional problems, not merely a byproduct of them.
By careful training, he helped people learn to voluntarily relax specific muscles of their body at will, and sure enough, it greatly reduced their anxiety symptoms — even for people who had a serious anxiety disorder. He found the procedure effective with ulcers, insomnia, and hypertension too.
Progressive Relaxation is still greatly respected and widely practiced by therapists today. References to the practice are strewn throughout the literature on anxiety. Why? Because it's simple and direct and it works. Jerilyn Ross adds this important point:
Creating and controlling your own tension allows you to become very aware of the differences in sensations produced by a state of tension versus a state of relaxation. With practice, you will become proficient at detecting tension even at mild levels.
In Progressive Relaxation, first you learn to relax your muscles lying down with your eyes closed, but the aim is to do it throughout the day while you're working, walking, talking, eating, etc. If you would like to use this method, you don't need any training to begin. Right now, can you find one muscle in your body that is tensing for no good purpose? Relax that muscle. Simple as that. A small percentage of people are unable to relax a muscle, in which case training is called for. There are several good audiotapes that can train you in Progressive Relaxation.
Next time you get into your car, check in on your muscles and relax the ones you aren't using. While you're driving, relax your face. While you're at work, make it a habit whenever you are in between tasks, to check your body for unnecessary muscular tension and relax it.
As your muscle tension decreases, your heart rate and your breathing slow down too. It calms you.
Check in on your body now and then. You may be surprised to find that every time you check, you have some muscles tensed that you aren't actually using. Take a deep breath, relax a few muscles, and already you feel more peaceful.
This you can also do anytime, anywhere. And it goes well with deep breathing — take a deep breath, notice where you have tense muscles, and as you breath out, let those muscles relax. Pay particular attention to your face, upper back and neck. Of all the great methods I have learned over the years, the one I use the most is this basic tool. It takes almost no time, and very little effort. And it has a noticeable effect. When in doubt, relax tense muscles.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.