Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/13/2022
Anxiety is a frustrating problem to have. When you become anxious, panicked or tense, your brain may be trying to tell you to relax, calm down and chill, and yet that’s exactly what it seems like you’re incapable of doing.
Feeling like you have no control, ironically enough, is how anxiety makes itself worse when you’re really spiraling.
There are ways to prevent this — therapy and medications can help you reduce the number of panic attacks and anxious moments you experience throughout the day. But you can’t exactly pop a pill or kick in your therapist’s door when in the midst of a panic attack.
It turns out that there is an option for in-the-moment anxiety attacks: relaxation exercises like progressive muscle relaxation.
Exercises designed to help you beat back those panicked thoughts and symptoms can benefit you in the worst of moments, and like Daniel LaRusso in the Karate Kid, a moment to collect yourself and muster some inner peace may help you take home a “W” for the day.
Unlike The Karate Kid, however, relaxation techniques aren’t fiction. Breathing and muscle relaxation is real — and it works.
Chronic stress can do some awful things to your body — it can cause stomach issues, headaches and increased blood pressure. It can lead to anxiety disorders and, in some cases, it can lead to depression and other forms of depressive disorder.
Stress does this by releasing hormones that increase your blood pressure and heart rate, causing the “stress response.”
Progessive muscle relaxation is a form of mental and physical relaxation technique designed to reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Relaxation techniques generally do this by causing your body to kick-start a different response — a relaxation response — to basically return your body to its static state.
There are various forms of relaxation techniques. For instance, meditation and deep breathing both fall into this category. Yoga and tai chi are also both considered effective relaxation techniques.
But the one that might be considered most user-friendly is progressive relaxation.
Progressive relaxation is simply a system of exercises that you can do anywhere, anytime, to shut off that stress response.
Seriously: bed, desk chair, elevator, back of the Uber or even in the middle seat in coach, progressive relaxation is with you.
You can do it in church or at a Slayer concert.
Progressive relaxation is a muscle-focused technique. Essentially, you tighten your muscles one small group at a time, and then release them. Many people start with their toes and work their way up.
The goal of this system is twofold: the user (you) is reminded that they have control over their body and of their muscles, and therefore of the muscle tension that has been building. Squeezing your toes and then releasing them reminds your body that you can relax it.
The ultimate goal, of course, being to help you regain control of your feelings and emotions.
Although clinical data is limited, progressive muscle relaxation seems to be effective. One study focused on one of the most chronically stressed groups of people: undergrads.
The study included 60 healthy undergraduates and looked at the effects of progressive muscle relaxation and several other techniques on their stress levels. Researchers found that these techniques were statistically significant with respect to their benefits on relaxation and stress management.
Progressive muscle relaxation showed immediate benefits compared with control groups, particularly in regards to the physical symptoms.
While the study acknowledges that more research is needed, they were generally optimistic, in that these results represented real-world benefits that could be applied to groups that tend to be more stressed — groups like the unemployed, minorities, people with disparate access to medical support and, yes, students.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a somewhat flexible technique, but generally, it follows a simple pattern. Remember, you’re essentially going through your body and tensing muscle groups one at a time, before allowing a release of tension to relax them. This is for the purpose of reducing tension (and therefore, the physiological stress) in your body.
The best way to practice progressive muscle relaxation is to first begin with your breathing. You’ll want to breathe in and hold your breath, followed by constricting the first muscle group (often your toes) for four to 10 seconds.
When you release, you breathe out and make sure to release the muscles — suddenly, not gradually.
Relax for 10 to 20 seconds after that, before continuing the process with the next muscle group — you may see differences between their pre- and post-squeeze state, and you may notice that some muscles tense or release more severely.
When you’ve finished everything from your toes to the top of your head, continue relaxing and breathing, gently returning to focus as you would at the end of a meditation session.
Different muscle groups may be most effectively tensed or relaxed in different ways — for instance, you’ll clench your eyes and hands, but extend your shoulders, wrists, cheeks and jaw.
Relaxation techniques are great, and if you find yourself in the position of being anxious and tightly wound in a work or transit environment (or at home, for that matter) they may be a great quick-stop technique to prevent a serious spiral and cut back on some of the anxiety.
But if you’re experiencing frequent anxiety, you’ll likely need to do more for yourself and your mind and body than work on relaxed muscles, especially if you want to prevent future attacks.
Medication may be one such option.
Antidepressants are known for treating depression, but when properly prescribed and taken as instructed, they can also help regulate imbalances in the same brain chemicals that, when imbalanced, can cause anxiety.
SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are a commonly prescribed antidepressant — they regulate the serotonin levels in your brain and are considered a safe and effective option.
There are other treatment options for anxiety. Our guide to coping with anxiety is a great place to learn more, but one more we will bring to your attention here is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
CBT is a form of therapy that helps you self-monitor and regulate your thoughts. It’s effective for anxiety, and considering that anxiety generally responds well to therapy, it may be a great addition to your exercises.
Mental health professionals may also advise you to look at habits like drinking and drug use that may be making your quality of life worse.
And this is a good time to remind you that a mental health professional is the first place your anxiety treatment should start — they’re going to tell you what has the best chances of helping you, be that breathing or muscle exercises, medications or therapy for treating anxiety.
Whether you’re tired of feeling anxious and wanting help, or ready to do something about it right now, talk to someone today. Relaxing is something we could all do more of — get the help you need to do that today.