Learning to Relax: Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson to teach individuals how to relax their muscles to reduce anxiety or stress, as well as physical problems such as stomachaches and headaches, and to even improve sleep. The technique involves voluntarily tensing and then relaxing different muscles in the body to help your child learn the difference between being tense and feeling relaxed. Since it is impossible to feel anxious and relaxed at the same time, this is a great tool for children and teens to use to challenge their worry and stress. And, because we always carry our muscles with us, muscle relaxation is a quick and easy MAP tool your child can use anytime, anywhere.
Note: Progressive muscle relaxation is intended for use when your child is struggling to tolerate the unwanted sensations, urges, thoughts, and feelings that come with stress and worry. As a result, relaxation can help your child float with his/her stress and worry, rather than trying to change, control, or eliminate it. Relaxation supports increased tolerance of anxiety, and healthy coping, in a calm and mindful way.
How to explain muscle relaxation to your child
Catch your child at a good time when s/he will be receptive to spending 10-15 minutes practicing together how to do muscle relaxation. Next, find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed, somewhere warm and comfortable such as a living room or your child’s bedroom. Then, review some of the information outlined in the previous section. You might say it this way:
When kids feel worried about stuff, it's normal for their muscles to get tight and tense. When this happens it can make kids feel uncomfortable in their bodies, which makes them feel even more anxious. Our job is to help you learn how to catch your muscles being too tight and train them to relax which will help lessen your worry and help you to feel calm again. So, let's begin. I’d like you to lie down in a comfortable spot and gently close your eyes. I’m going to teach you how to do a few muscle exercises so I want you to listen to my voice and do what I say. It's okay if you don’t get it at first, just try.
Script for full version
“Begin by lying down with your arms by your side and your legs stretched out in front of you. Close your eyes. Start by squeezing your eyes tight and scrunching your nose as if you’ve smelled garbage. Next, force your mouth into a wide smile kinda like what would happen with g-forces in a fast car, and at the same time bite down to tense your mouth and jaw. Hold this position for 15 seconds, or the count of 15. 1, 2, 3, 4, …. 15. Then slowly open your eyes, and let go of the tight position in your nose, mouth, and jaw. Let these parts of your face feel soft and relaxed for another 15 seconds. Notice how your face is smooth and relaxed, your cheeks feel soft, and your tongue is loose in your mouth. This is so different than when your muscles were tight. This is how your face likes to feel; calm, smooth, soft, and gentle. This can help you learn the difference between tension and relaxation so that you can make your muscles relax when you notice they are tense.
Now we will move to your neck and shoulders. Tuck your neck into your shoulders like a scared turtle. The muscles will feel tight but not sore. Hold this position for 15 seconds, noticing the pull on your neck muscles and how uncomfortable this feels. Our bodies are not meant to hold this position; our body prefers to feel calm and relaxed. Now slowly let your shoulders drop down and relax your head. You can even roll your head around for a few moments to help let the stiffness melt away leaving your head, neck, and shoulders feeling restful and calm. Stay in this relaxing position for 15 seconds. 1, 2, 3, … 15.
Next, we will focus on your hands and arms. Make fists with your hands and cross your arms at the wrists. Hold your arms up in front of you and push them together as if you are arm wrestling with yourself. Hold your arms in this position with your fists closed as I count to 15. 1, 2, 3, … 15. Now let your fists uncurl and your arms slowly drop down next to you. Stay just like this while I count to 15. 1, 2, 3, … 15. Notice how different it feels. Now your arms are heavy and relaxed but before they were as stiff as a piece of wood. Your body really likes to feel relaxed and calm- this is what you are going to try to do when worry budges in and gets your body all tense and tight.
We have made half your body relaxed, so now we will work on the last half. I want you to pull your arms behind your back and try to make your elbows touch. You might need to sit up for this one if you are lying down. Hold this position as I count to 15. 1, 2, 3, … 15. Now slowly let your elbows rest at your side and lie back down letting your lung and chest muscles relax. Once again your body is feeling so much better in the smooth, gentle position. Let's have you stay like this for another 15 seconds. (. 1, 2, 3, … 15.)
The next group of muscles to train is your tummy and back. I want you to suck in your belly as if there is a powerful magnet behind you pulling on your belly button. Stay in this position while I count to 15. 1, 2, 3, … 15. Can you feel how your belly doesn’t feel comfortable? Now you can tell your belly to relax, letting it puff out and feel smooth. You might notice as you go through all of these muscle exercises, tensing and relaxing, that you are starting to feel more relaxed. Your muscles might feel heavy and calm, and your whole body is beginning to feel relaxed. You are in charge of how your body feels and you are telling your muscles that they can listen to you and do not have to do what worry tells them.
The last exercise is your legs and feet. I’d like you to stick your legs straight out in front of you raised slightly off the bed or floor and point your toes to your nose as if there is a laser beam shooting at your nose! Stay like this as I count to 15. 1, 2, 3, … 15. Now slowly let your legs drop back to the bed or floor. Your legs might feel loose and floppy, as if they are the legs of a stuffed doll. This feels so much better than when your legs are listening to worry and are tense and tight.
We have now done all 6-muscle groups and your body is really beginning to feel relaxed. You can repeat these six steps several times to relax your body even more, beginning again with your eyes.”
Quick Tense & Relax!
After your child has had some time to practice the full version of the muscle relaxation exercise, introduce the quick tense and relax strategy. In this approach, your child learns how to tense all the muscle groups (for 5-10 seconds) and then to relax all the muscles in his or her body at one time. Your child can do this by scrunching up his whole face at the same time that he tucks his head into his shoulders, while making his elbows touch and his forearms and fingers stretch out. He will also pull in his belly button while stretching his legs out in front, pointing toes to nose. He will hold this for 5-10 seconds. Then he will silently say the word “relax” and let his whole body go limp like a rag doll. Over time, your child can start to practice this strategy in more stressful situations (for example, in the playground or while in the car).
Once your child has learned to tense and relax the whole body, the next step is to practice relaxing without tensing so that your child can easily use this strategy in a wide range of situations. Ask your child to take a deep breath, then slowly let out the breath while silently saying the word “relax” and letting the whole body go limp like a rag doll. If the child wishes, he or she can go through several breaths while focusing in on each group one at a time, letting the body become looser and more relaxed after each breath. The goal is to help your child develop a quick strategy to help him or her relax in any situation.
- Set aside 10 to 15 minutes to complete this exercise
- Find a place where you and your child can complete this exercise without being disturbed
- Teens may prefer to do this exercise on their own. Encourage them to find a quiet place to practice
- When reading the instructions, speak slowly and use a calm and soothing voice. Pause after each instruction to allow your child time to carry it out
- You can make a recording for your child using a simple audio recording device on your smart phone, computer, or download from the internet. This will allow you to make a single recording that lets your child use it many times without you having to be there
- Make sure your child is not tensing too hard. He or she should feel tightness in the muscles, but not pain. You can ask your child to tense each muscle for 3-5 to be sure s/he understands how it is supposed to feel before you go through the full script
- Once your child is comfortable with this technique, he or she can start using it in situations that cause anxiety. At first you may need to remind your child, but over time s/he will be able to remember that using relaxation is a fast and easy way to reduce unwanted worry! However, make sure your child understands that the goal of relaxation is not to escape or avoid worry, but to helps kids tolerate anxiety and cope with stress in a calm and mindful way.
- For teens you can also check out our teen site for other breathing scripts.
- Daily practice will allow this skill to become second nature. It can be helpful to practice the full version of the muscle relaxation exercise in the evening before your child goes to bed, and the quick tense and relax or quick relax exercise at different times during the day. You can even break it up so your child practices the full version one day, and the quick version the next, full, quick, and so on