Anxiety and muscle tension

If you are often worried or experience fear or anxiety, it can start affecting your body. One side effect of frequent worry, fear or anxiousness is that your muscles start tensing up, because your body is on high alert. Over time, this can lead to pain in the muscles or tension headaches. One tool that you can use to help reduce tension in the body is what is called ‘progressive muscle relaxation’.

Why do the exercise?

This muscle relaxation exercise is also known as the “tense-relax method”. The exercise is especially good if you find that you are tense in your body, or if you generally experience difficulty relaxing. In addition, it can help if you have trouble falling asleep, or experience mild tension headaches. The exercise helps calm your body, and at the same time sends signals to your brain that you are safe.

How to do the exercise

You do the exercise by consciously tensing your muscles, and then relaxing. The exercise is called ‘progressive’ because you go through all the major muscle groups one at a time, until you have worked through your entire body.

Start by choosing a place where you can sit or lie down. Traditionally you begin the exercise by starting from the bottom of your body and work your way up. For example, you could start with your feet, then your legs, hands, arms, buttocks, abdomen, chest, shoulders, neck, jaw, eyes and finally forehead. If there is another order that you feel suits you better, then feel free to do that instead. The most important thing is that you work systematically through all your muscle groups.

  • Focus on the first muscle group that you would like to relax. Inhale slowly while tensing the muscles and hold the tension for 5-10 seconds. Remember not to tense your muscles too hard when doing the exercise. You should be able to feel that they are tense, but it should never be painful, or cause you to experience cramping.
  • Exhale as you release the tension in the muscles, and try to notice the difference between how it felt when the muscles were tense and when they are now relaxed.
  • After about 10 seconds, move on to the next muscle group, and repeat the steps; breathe in, tense, hold, breathe out, relax. Keep going until you have worked your way all the way through your body.
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