Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Insomnia

A century-old technique called progressive muscle relaxation could relieve your insomnia. Learn how this relaxation therapy may help you feel and sleep better.

If you’re trying to find a solution for insomnia, your doctor may recommend progressive muscle relaxation to help you sleep. Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation therapy first developed by Chicago physician Edmund Jacobson, MD in 1915 and published in the 1920s.

“Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation exercise in which you systematically tense and then relax all the muscle groups of your body,” explains Phil Gehrman, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Penn Medicine and clinical director of Penn Medicine’s Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Penn Sleep Center in Philadelphia. “It helps promote overall physical relaxation, which has a number of benefits on its own.”

The Benefits of Progressive Muscle Relaxation

People who practice progressive muscle relaxation regularly tend to have:

  • A better sense of overall well-being
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Less muscle tension
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower level of fatigue

In addition to these benefits, researchers are finding that this relaxation therapy may help people with insomnia. In fact, a recent study found that progressive muscle relaxation improved sleep quality and reduced fatigue in women who were undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

How Progressive Muscle Relaxation Eases Insomnia

According to Gehrman, progressive muscle relaxation can help relieve insomnia in two ways:

  • Physical relaxation. Many people who have trouble falling asleep get physically tense and restless. “Progressive muscle relaxation can help with physically relaxing the body,” he says.
  • Calming the mind. Are racing thoughts keeping you from sleeping? “When you are focusing on doing this exercise, it helps to relax your mind,” says Gehrman. Gehrman cautions that while progressive muscle relaxation is safe and beneficial for most people, the required tensing of muscles can be uncomfortable if you have chronic pain.

How to Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation

On your own, a session of progressive muscle relaxation takes about 10 to 15 minutes. You can practice progressive muscle relaxation any time of day, but Gehrman says that people with insomnia most often do it just before going to bed or after they get into bed.

During progressive muscle relaxation, you will focus on each muscle group in your body, first tensing selected muscles for a few seconds and then slowly relaxing them over the course of 20 to 30 seconds.

To practice progressive muscle relaxation at home, lie down in a quiet space, free of distractions, and breathe steadily as you progress in the following order:

  • Face. Lift your eyebrows to wrinkle your forehead, and then slowly relax and let the tension out of your forehead. Close your eyes tightly and then relax and slowly open them. Tense your lips, cheeks, and jaw muscles by grimacing, and then feel a sense of serenity come over your face as you relax all your facial muscles at once.
  • Shoulders and arms. Bring your shoulders toward your ears, tensing your muscles, and then slowly let them relax. Starting with your upper arms, flex your biceps, and then relax, letting the tension out of your muscles. Tense your forearms, and then slowly let them relax.
  • Chest and abdomen. Take a deep breath and tense the muscles within your chest and abdomen, and then slowly exhale as you relax these muscles.
  • Back. Flex the muscles in your back as you arch them on the floor or bed, and then relax and let the stress and tension go out of your back muscles.
  • Hips and buttocks. Tighten the muscles in your hips and buttocks, and then slowly release the tension and feel the stress leaving this area of your body.
  • Legs and feet. Flex your leg muscles, squeezing your legs together, and then slowly relax. Flex your feet for a few seconds, and then relax them. Curl your toes, and then slowly let them return to neutral.

After you have systematically tightened and relaxed all the muscle groups in your body, you should feel relaxed and calm.

As with any new technique, progressive muscle relaxation takes some time to master. “You may need to practice it once or twice a day for about a week to really start getting good at it,” says Gehrman.

By Krisha McCoy, MS – Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH