Muscle tension is a hallmark sign of stress.
Stress causes muscle tension, which then causes more stress, creating a vicious feedback loop that can leave you walking around with your shoulders all the way up by your ears.
But relaxing the muscles disrupts this loop. When a set of muscles relax, the sensory neurons in those muscles transmit a new message to your brain: “I’m relaxed now,” which then triggers the nervous system to switch the circuits and head toward a relaxed state.
This is why finding effective ways to purposefully and mindfully relax your muscles will go a long way in helping you to relax your whole being.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is one exercise caregivers can use for relaxation. Research suggests that PMR is effective at reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress—and even more effective than acupuncture in some cases.
PMR is completely free, and you can do it alone, or with one of the many free guided PMR recordings online.
In this exercise technique, you slowly tense and relax each muscle group in a systematic way. It’s often difficult to interpret our own muscle tension among all the clatter of stress and anxiety, but this technique helps train your mind to become conscious of muscle tension while also providing a skill to reverse it.
It’s best to use a guided PMR recording the first few times. Once you know the basic sequence, it’s easier to perform on your own if a guided recording isn’t convenient or available.
While the main ingredient of this relaxation technique is actively tensing the muscles, it’s important not to tense them to the point of strain. Tense them enough until you’re able to detect the distinct feeling of tension in each muscle, and the subsequent tension release as you purposely release the tension. Imagery is helpful in conjunction with releasing muscle tension—such as imagining that stress is flowing out of your body as you relax each muscle group, or that you’re exhaling the tension as you release the muscle group.
Free PMR resources
PMR is completely free, and you can do it alone, or with one of the many free guided PMR recordings online:
- This 16-minute guided PMR recording includes a brief introduction that offers helpful information and tips to get the most out of PMR.
- Dartmouth offers a longer (30-minute) free PMR recording on its student wellness website.
- Try these free PMR playlists on InsightTimer or Spotify.
This app offers progressive muscle relaxation recordings, plus several other stress-busting features like a mood tracker and breathwork. The health tracker clues you into how factors like sleep and caffeine might be affecting your mood.
Get Pacifica on iOS and Android.
Superchill is a minimalist meditation app that will help you relax and relieve stress using 10-minute PMR sessions.
Get Superchill on iOS only (works with the Apple Watch)
Peppermint and camphor oils, creams and rubs
Peppermint is often used in aromatherapy blends that target stress and anxiety. It’s also helpful for muscle aches and pain caused by muscle tension due to its natural muscle-relaxing and pain-relieving effects. Skin oils, creams and rubs that contain peppermint oil and camphor (a compound obtained from peppermint oil) are an excellent way to kick off a relaxing evening.
This balm offers a potent blend of arnica, camphor, menthol and peppermint oils to bring soothing relief to tense achy muscles. Its base, which is made of beeswax, oils and hemp, nourishes and moisturizes skin with no synthetic ingredients.
Sombra gelShop Now $28
Sombra gel delivers safe temperature therapy that will neither freeze nor overheat your skin. When applied, the effects of witch hazel, a natural astringent, temporarily warm the skin, and the camphor and menthol blend provides a cooling effect, creating a balance of both sensations that’s powerful on tense muscles.
Penetrex’s Therapy CreamShop Now $18.95
The powerful synergy of the blend of arnica, vitamin B6 and MSM allows the cream to penetrate the skin deeply and quickly, which means the soothing and antispasmodic relief of peppermint and camphor ingredients quickly absorb into your muscles for immediate relief.
Next time you have a tension headache, try the Tension Relief roll-on by Plant Therapy. The peppermint oil works the same as the creams, but it comes pre-diluted so it’s safe to use on the delicate skin of the temples and scalp.
While it’s true exercise increases endorphins, not all types of exercise are suitable for relaxation. More specifically, it’s the intensity of the exercise that makes the difference.
During cardio exercise, the sympathetic nervous system is in charge of elevating your heart rate to meet the requirements demanded by the body, but the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) regulates how high your heart rate goes.
Too much intensive cardio exercise will override your PNS, making it more difficult to relax. On the other hand, light cardio exercise gives the PNS ample room to do its work to keep your body balanced and relaxed.
Any relaxation technique can be used as “spot treatments” for those times when your stress bubbles up over the lid, but they’re even more powerful when you practice them consistently. Just like lifting weights builds your muscles over time, taking time to intentionally relax builds the resilience of your parasympathetic nervous system, teaching your body to relax faster and on your cue.
…taking time to intentionally relax builds the resilience of your parasympathetic nervous system, teaching your body to relax faster and on your cue.
Remember, small steps create big, positive changes. These are challenging times, be kind to yourself and take each day as it comes.