The Nuance

Relaxing Your Muscles Can Relax Your Mind

Progressive muscle relaxation therapy is one of the simplest science-backed treatments for anxiety

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readAug 13, 2020

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Credit: Delmaine Donson / Getty Images

During the early days of the novel coronavirus outbreak, doctors in China noticed that many people hospitalized with Covid-19 were developing anxiety and sleeping problems. These patients were forced to spend weeks cut off from contact with friends and family, and so the doctors partly attributed their woes to the unsettling effects of social isolation.

At a hospital in Hainan province, a physician study team decided to treat their patients’ isolation-induced anxiety and sleeping problems using a relaxation technique known as progressive muscle relaxation therapy, or PMR.

“Progressive muscle relaxation teaches you how to relax your muscles through a two-step process,” explains Mohammad Jafferany, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at Central Michigan University. Jafferany was not involved with the Chinese research, but he has studied the clinical effects of PMR. “First, you systematically tense particular muscle groups in your body,” he explains. “Next, you release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when you relax them.”

Twice a day for five consecutive days, a group of Covid-19 patients at the Hainan hospital listened to piped-in instructions that guided them through a typical PMR therapy session. They lay down on their backs and then tensed and relaxed the muscles of their hands, arms, head, neck, torso, and legs. According to the results of that study, which was published in May in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, the patients’ scores on a clinically validated anxiety measuring tool improved by 22%, and their sleep scores improved by 30%. Meanwhile, the study team observed no anxiety or sleep benefits among a control group that received standard care but not PMR.

“First, you systematically tense particular muscle groups in your body. Next, you release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when you relax them.”

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.