But decades before burnout became a thing, early 20th century physician Dr. Edmund Jacobson was already well aware of the negative health effects brought on by the pressure to be overly productive.
“Our efforts to achieve the smaller and greater forms of success for which all of us strive can lead to tension disorders when these efforts become greater than our bodies can bear,” he wrote in his 1934 book You Must Relax: A Practical Method for Reducing the Strains of Modern Living.
As a global pandemic forces many to adapt to new forms of life and work, Jacobson’s progressive relaxation technique feels strangely timely.
The birth of progressive relaxation
Jacobson was known as the “father of tension control” among practitioners of applied physiology. His 1928 book Progressive Relaxation pioneered the scientific study of relaxation–not in the sense of leisure activity, but rather, the absence of nerve muscle impulse.
Jacobson had a PhD in psychology from Harvard. He’d studied under William James, then the authority on relaxation. Yet he later wrote that he’d been disappointed to see just how nervous and tense James and his other teachers behaved.
Dissatisfied with the experimental methods and mystical techniques claimed by others to calm the nerves of tense individuals, Jacobson spent his life studying scientific relaxation.
In his laboratory at the University of Chicago, Jacobson taught his experimental subjects to cultivate a “muscle-sense” by paying close attention to the difference between the feeling of a contracted muscle versus a relaxed muscle.
“This is you doing!” Jacobson would tell his subjects as they tensed their muscles during their first training, “What we wish is the reverse of this–simply not doing,” he recounted in his 1934 book You Must Relax.
Through many sessions of honing their muscle-sense, subjects learned to progressively relax until they reached a state of complete relaxation. In this state, subjects showed no signs of muscular activity and reported an absence of not just anxious thoughts but all thoughts.
Jacobson’s subjects reported a general reduction in bodily fatigue and anxiety–as well an increased sense of well-being. He recommended patients take an hour at noon and an hour at sundown to practice progressive relaxation to best treat their disorders, such as hypertension, coronary insufficiency, “spastic colon” (today known as irritable bowel syndrome) and other tension and stress-related disorders.
Thankfully–for stressed-out people short on time–studies show that practicing an abbreviated form of progressive relaxation, which takes just 15 to 20 minutes, can reduce stress in healthy subjects, as well as symptoms in people suffering from anxiety, depression, tension headaches, migraines, chronic pain and more.
I stumbled upon progressive relaxation when looking for a supervisor for my master’s thesis in psychology and philosophy. I noticed that health practitioners in different fields–from psychotherapists and psychiatrists to neurologists and physiotherapists–offered progressive relaxation as a complementary therapy.
To combat the anxious thoughts that popped up while writing my thesis under heaps of books and a looming deadline, I practiced the technique right in the library and found it to be a great way to clear my head and refocus on my research.
A guide to progressive relaxation
This short guide is adapted from New Directions in Progressive Relaxation Training: A Guidebook for Helping Professionals by Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Thomas D. Borkovec, and Douglas A. Bernstein.
Find a calm space and lie down or sit in a comfortable chair; an office chair is fine. Take a few deep, abdominal breaths and focus your attention on where in the body tension is most present–psychologists call this body-scanning.
Tense each muscle listed below separately for seven seconds and then immediately relax. Pay attention to how the muscle feels after each release–this is your muscle-sense. Start with your dominant side first.
Note: Be careful to avoid cramps and spasms–tense slowly and not too hard. If you have a disability, an injury, or feel any discomfort in a particular part of your body, feel free to modify the procedure accordingly. If anxious or other distracting thoughts pop up, simply refocus your attention to your breathing or your body and let the thoughts fade away.
• hand and forearm — Make a fist and pull it inward.
• biceps — Bring your arm to your chest by bending the elbow.
• forehead — Furl your eyebrows inward like you’re really angry.
• upper cheeks and nose — Smile: bring your checks to your eyes.
• lower cheeks and jaws — Purse your lips hard.
• neck and throat — Press your neck down against the floor.
• chest, shoulders, and upper back — Push your shoulders up to your ears.
• abdominal or stomach region — Push your belly in.
• buttocks — Squeeze them together.
• thigh — Just squeeze.
• calf — Try to fold your toes onto your calf.
• foot — Curl your toes into a ball and point them away for you.
If you’ve got time after relaxing all the muscles above, do another body scan and identify where you feel excess tension and repeat the relaxation where necessary.
Two 10-minute practice procedures per day are recommended to effectively learn how to relax. If you’re really pressed for time and don’t know where to carve out gaps in your schedule, try to make time: such as when you get home from work, after exercising, or right before you go to bed.
Progressive muscle relaxation has been shown to help with both acute and chronic insomnia.
If a long day is making it hard to relax at night, try reading a novel in bed after practicing progressive relaxation. Reading fiction has been found to reduce stress.
The power of muscle-sense
The real virtue of the skill of relaxation is in developing the muscle-sense, or proprioception, a sixth sense of the position and movement of the body. By developing your muscle-sense you can learn to detect subtle amounts of tension build up–like that hardness below your shoulders from hunching over the keyboard–and proactively relieve the tension with relaxation.
With practice, progressive relaxation can act as a “built-in tranquilizer”–as hotdog mogul Oscar G. Mayer, a friend of Jacobson’s, once referred to the technique.
What do muscles have to do with the mind?
In The Human Mind, published a year before his death in 1983, Jacobson tackled the interminable mind-body problem–the puzzle of the relationship between human thought and body. Jacobson ultimately believed that the body actually constituted the mind. Hence, to calm the nerves is to calm the mind.
However, relaxation-induced anxiety–the phenomenon of increased anxiety among uneasy newcomers to relaxation and meditation practices–has cast doubt on Jacobson’s explanation.
The general understanding is that progressive relaxation elicits the relaxation response, a set of integrated processes that includes reduced heart rate and blood pressure. By progressively relaxing the muscles, we send messages to the brain which deactivate not just the muscular system but also the entire sympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s flight-or-fight mechanisms (known as the stress response).
When the sympathetic system shuts down, the parasympathetic system–responsible for the body’s rest and repair mechanisms–turn on. By focusing on the feeling of relaxation, we simply allow the sympathetic system to run smoothly and without interruptions. We are letting the brain rest from reading anything in reality as potentially threatening.
Relaxation as a way of life
Jacobson strived for a secular and scientific explanation of the healing power of relaxation, yet his legacy somewhat resembles that of a spiritual guru. In the preface to You Must Relax, he wrote, “scientific relaxation is not only a medical field. It is in addition a way of life.”
Our lives today are often dominated by alerts, push notifications, pop-ups and vibrations, all beckoning for our attention dozens of times a day. Technology can help us be more efficient and improve our performance, but it can also slow us down with distractions and distort our sense of control. In this sense Jacobson’s techniques and insights feel even more relevant today.