Learn How to Relax

If you ever find yourself getting tense or stressed out at work, there is an exercise which can help you. It was developed by American physiologist and physician Edmund Jacobson in the late 1930s, and it works on the basis of gradually tensing and then releasing tension in individual muscle groups in sequence. Muscles are always more relaxed after being tensed and released. This practice automatically brings physical relaxation which, in turn, calms the mind and our emotions. It works particularly well in reducing anxiety and insomnia but also in improving concentration and increasing self-esteem and a sense of control over moods. The whole practice lasts for 15 or 20 minutes, and the more regularly you practise this, the more you will get from it.

The process simply involves alternately tensing and releasing specific groups of muscles. Tense whilst breathing in, diaphragmatically and through the nose, to a count of three; hold your breath and hold the tension for at least 5 seconds, to notice the tension; and then release whilst breathing out to the count of five, again breathing diaphragmatically and through the nose. During this practice, really concentrate on the muscles, specifically the contrast between tension and release. In time, you will become a real expert at recognising tension in any specific muscle and will be able to reduce that tension quickly. Take care not to overexert yourself, and if any muscle feels painful when you tense it or if you have an injured muscle, just focus on a sense of gently relaxing that group without tensing it, before moving on to the next muscle group. Your mind may wander – that’s natural – and if it does, you can just bring the focus gently back to the sensations you notice as you tense and relax. Many people prefer to close their eyes whilst doing this. Alternatively, you can just find a spot on the wall or in the distance, and keep a keen focus on that instead – it's up to you. When you notice yourself being supported, whether you are sitting or lying down, you can start with any muscle group you choose, adapting the sequence suggested here so that it best suits you.

Begin with three or more diaphragmatic breaths, each time exhaling slowly for longer than you breathe in. Then clench your fists, hold and release. When you notice the release of tension in your fists and hands, tighten the muscles in your forearms, drawing up your forearms towards your shoulders; hold and release. Move then to the muscles on the underside of your upper arms – tense as you extend your arms out straight; hold and then relax the arms. When you notice your arms are relaxed, then tense the muscles in your forehead by raising your eyebrows as far as you can; hold and then release. Then tense the muscles around your eyes by shutting your eyelids tightly; hold and then relax. You can then tighten your jaw by opening your mouth widely; hold and then release. Now make a small, tight “O” shape with your lips; hold and then release (notice the skin on your face smoothing out as you exhale). Tense the muscles in the back of your neck by moving your head backwards just as far as is comfortable for you; really concentrate on the tension in your neck as you hold before releasing. Then tense your shoulders by lifting them up towards your ears; hold and then release. Tighten the muscles around your shoulder blades by pushing your shoulders back, bringing the shoulder blades closer together; hold and then release. As you go through the process, notice the difference between a tense muscle and a relaxed muscle. Breathe in rest and comfort, and breathe out any tension.

You can then tighten your chest muscles by taking in a really deep breath, holding and then releasing, before tightening your stomach muscles by sucking in your stomach, holding and then releasing. Now, tighten your lower back by arching it gently upwards; hold and then relax. Tighten your buttocks by pulling them together, then hold and then relax, before squeezing the muscles in your hips and thighs right down to your knees, then holding and then releasing. Then tighten the muscles in your calves by stretching your toes towards you; hold and then release. And finally, tighten your feet by curling your toes downwards; hold and then release.

You can then scan your body for any residual tension, and repeat the tense and relax sequence for any muscle groups which need it. Continue to notice a sense of relaxation in your body, and understand that regular practice will help to give you an increasing sense of well-being.