23 August, 2013

Muscle up and let go with Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Back in the days there was a period when  behaviour therapies took off and I used to teach 'relaxation' to psychiatric patients.

At the time, having done the research, I came upon the work of Edmund Jacobson (1888-1983) and was soon coaching folk in his Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves tensing specific muscle groups and then relaxing them to create awareness of tension and relaxation. It is termed progressive because it proceeds through all major muscle groups, relaxing them one at a time, and eventually leads to total muscle relaxation.
If you know your onions you'll know that Jacobson's work also  led to Biofeedback....
During the same period, friends of mine and patients I worked  with who suffered from epilepsy were recruited to a research project to see if  Biofeeback could reduce the incidences of their seizures.(You can monitor brain wave activity with electroencephaogy and  epileptic potential  presents as a very clear spike in brain waves.) It seemed to work but the problem is that biofeedback tends to be hardware dependent. 
In the decades since, I've not given Progressive Muscle Relaxation another thought.  And besides I  always deployed it for 'other' people.

As chance would have it I was researching isometric exercise approaches to hypertension when it struck me that Jacobson was doing the same thing.

So I started to experiment.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is easy to do. No mind tricks. No mantra. No out-of-body demands.

Very DIY.

Just tense muscle groups. Let go. Consider the process ...and move onto another set of muscles.  Tense...and relax. Tense....and relax.

What I found out (about myself I guess) is:
  • PMR beats insomnia. If you want to sleep, the 'exercising' part of the technique distracts the mind from  whatever its nocturnal obsessions and draws you into a body focusing experience. It's a wonderful distraction.
  • PMR is easy done as soon as you go to bed or lie down. 
  • PMR counteracts pain and stiffness. Since I suffer from a lot of pain and stiffness day to day, by each day's end I'm not necessarily that aware of what level of discomfort I'm carrying around with me. Since I am of the grin-and-bear-it school, I suspect that a day's somatic discomfort generates an armour which I'm unconscious of. I knew that the exertion and tension demanded by HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) reduced my painfulness but I suspect that a quick session of PMR will too. No mumbo jumbo tricks here -- just as you flinch at pain to protect yourself, PMR tenses a region of muscles and then gives you the go-ahead to  let them go.
  • PMR is a biofeedback method  without hardware because it teaches me to be more somatic aware. I've explored  many movement awareness approaches over the years (Feldenkrais and Tai Chi Chuan especially) as well as connective tissue therapies (such as Rolfing and Bowen  [ and I'm trained in Bowen]) -- and they are all good to go, but PMR is such an easy switch on that I think it simplifies the access to this sort of awareness. You don't need instructors or coaches. You just stretch out or sit down and do it.
The more you practice PMR the easier it gets. You skill up.