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What is progressive muscle relaxation? Your soothing guide to CBT for insomnia

There are plenty of reasons why you might struggle to get to sleep at night.

Some people don’t have the best sleep hygiene — they spend hours staring at their phone before they go to bed, and the blue light keeps their mind awake and alert. 

Other people have mattresses that are too soft, pillows that are too hard, or rooms that are too warm to facilitate a good night’s sleep. 

Some issues with insomnia are easier to overcome than others. 

For instance, if the reason that you can’t enjoy a good slumber each night is that you’re overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, then a change in bedding isn’t going to make a huge difference. 

The good news is that there are treatments available for people who need a little help shutting off when they go to bed each night. 

CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is a therapeutic treatment solution that aims to change your thoughts and behaviours, to encourage a good night’s sleep. 

Here’s your guide to CBT, and how progressive muscle relaxation can help you to get a better snooze.

What is progressive muscle relaxation?

Progressive muscle relaxation is a therapy designed to deal with the stress and anxiety that keeps some of us tossing and turning at night. PMR is a big component of the CBT-I treatment for insomnia. The aim is to learn exercises that will help your body and mind to unwind before bed. 

Progressive muscle relaxation is a proven technique, used to control anxiety, stress, and other issues that can prompt insomnia. Some doctors even recommend using a progressive muscle relaxation script to overcome kinds of chronic pain

As a component of a complete CBT strategy for insomnia, progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing or tightening the various muscles in your body, then actively relaxing those same muscles, so you can feel the relief of “letting go”. 

Progressive relaxation definitely isn’t a new concept. It was introduced by a man called Edmund Jacobson in the 1930s and is based on his idea that mental calmness is crucial to physical relaxation. 

The good news is that anyone can learn this sleep-boosting strategy, and it only takes about 10 or 20 minutes per day to master. 

There is a bit of an art to the treatment. Most practitioners will recommend tensing and relaxing your muscles at certain times, in a specific order. Although much of the process involves finding what works best for you. 

How to follow a progressive muscle relaxation script

Usually, when you’re referred to a specialist for CBT for insomnia, your cognitive behavioural therapist will give you a progressive muscle relaxation script to follow. You can follow the guidelines provided at home, or even use apps on your phone for some extra help. 

Usually, people perform their PMR treatments in bed, before they go to sleep, but you can also use the same techniques throughout the day to overcome periods of stress and anxiety. 

During the relaxation session, you focus on each muscle group in your body one at a time, tensing select muscles for a few seconds, then slowly relaxing them. It’s best to do this in a quiet space, free from distraction. 

When you’re ready, work on the follow muscle groups:

  • The face: Wrinkle your forehead, lift your eyebrows, and close your eyes tightly to create tension. Then gradually and carefully relax every part of your face. If you can squish up your cheeks and tense your jaw, this will be helpful too. 
  • Shoulders and arms: After your face, go down to your arms and shoulders, and bring them towards your ears, tensing all of your muscles. Flex your biceps and your forearms, then relax, letting your arms fall back to your sides. 
  • Chest and abdomen: Inhale deeply and tense the muscles in your chest and abdomen. When you’re ready, slowly exhale and relax those muscles. Remember to tense your stomach too!
  • Back: The back can hold a lot of tension. Flex the muscles in your back and arch them off the floor or bed, then relax and allow your body to fall back down (carefully). 
  • Hips and buttocks: Tighten the muscles around your hips and buttons, then pay careful attention to how you feel when you release the tension. 
  • Legs and feet: Flex the muscles in your legs, squeezing them together, then relax slowly. Flex your feet for a few seconds and relax them, then curl your toes and allow them to gradually return to normal. 

You can also work from the bottom up if you prefer to do it that way. The key to progressive muscle relaxation is making sure that you systematically tighten and relax all the major muscle groups in your body. 

Progressive muscle relaxation benefits

Mastering progressive muscle relaxation takes a little time and practice. If you can learn how to make the most of this aspect of CBT for insomnia, however, there are a lot of benefits to reap. 

It’s easy to underestimate how much muscle tension can cause problems with your mind and body. The more tensed your muscles are, the more likely you are to suffer from pain and discomfort. 

What’s more, we’re so used to dealing with stress and anxiety, we don’t always notice the tension that we’re holding throughout the day. 

Progressive muscle relaxation works by causing people to pay more attention to the sensations that they feel within their bodies, therefore promoting relaxation. 

Used correctly, PMR has even been found to influence the way that the autonomic nervous system works. This system is made up of your sympathetic nervous system — which is responsible for the flight or fight response that we feel when we’re scared, and the parasympathetic system. 

The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for calming your mind and body after a threat has been removed. 

Progressive muscle relaxation activates your parasympathetic system, which lowers your heart rate, reduces tension, and slows your breathing. PMR can even reduce your blood pressure, which is better for your long-term health too! 

People who practice progressive relaxation regularly tend to experience:

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Less muscle pain and tension
  • Less stress and anxiety
  • A reduced level of fatigue
  • Quicker and higher-quality sleep
  • A better sense of wellbeing overall

Since tension and the way that you feel can have a huge impact on your ability to sleep, it’s no wonder that countless specialists rely on the progressive muscle relaxation benefits for insomniacs who need help drifting off at night. 

Using progressive muscle relaxation with CBT for insomnia

Notably, progressive muscle relaxation is just one kind of treatment used within CBT, or CBT-I for people who struggle with their sleep.

In most cases, this therapy will be combined with other kinds of CBT, like biofeedback, to help accelerate the results that a patient can experience. 

Biofeedback allows you to monitor the various physiological activities in your body, like an increase in heart rate or tension, so you can see the areas where you need to relax most. Some people find it helpful to recognize periods of stress when they can see them on a scanner or sensor. 

If you’re using biofeedback therapy with progressive muscle relaxation therapy, you’ll usually have your initial sessions with a therapist. This specialist will be able to help you understand your response to certain stimuli. 

A therapist can also teach you different relaxation exercises that you can fine-tune to address various bodily functions. 

Biofeedback often combines progressive muscle relaxation with things like guided imagery, which helps to focus your mind and mindfulness meditation, which focuses your thoughts and allows you to let go of negative emotions.

You can also use deep breathing to help you relax too. 

Because progressive muscle relaxation is just one part of a full CBT for insomnia treatment, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to handle it. 

Some people find it helpful to imagine a wave of relaxation flowing over their body from their head to their feet. Other people enjoy having someone guiding them through the progressive muscle relaxation process. 

Often, the key to success is personalising your experience to suit you. You may begin with thinking about how you’re breathing when your hand is on your stomach.

Alternatively, you could start using progressive muscle relaxation on just the parts of your body that hold the most tension. 

Should you try progressive muscle relaxation?

As a solution for people suffering from sleep deprivation and other sleep disorders, progressive muscle relaxation is one of the safest and easiest treatments available. Learning how to relax can help you in various areas of your life. 

With it, you can overcome anxiety and stress, deal with complicated situations, and even overcome the common side effects of insomnia. 

Progressive muscle relaxation is also a fantastic tool if you want to learn more about listening to your body and the signals that it gives you. With time and practice, you can begin to identify the signs of stress throughout your body and gain more control over your emotions. 

If you find it hard to come up with your own progressive muscle relaxation script, speak to a doctor about being referred to a sleep specialist for additional help.

You can also find various PMR sessions available to download online, from places like the Dartmouth College Health Service

Siestio. Sleep Matters.

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