Perhaps one of the most common symptoms of anxiety is muscle tension. In fact, more than 90% of the Anxiety Sisters we’ve interviewed over the last seven years reported aches and pains in their backs, necks, shoulders and other large muscle groups. This makes sense: the anxiety response causes muscles to contract (tighten) in preparation for a rapid exit or fierce battle. In Anxiety Sisters, brain misfires cause constant and/or overly intense fight or flight responses, which leaves muscles contracted over long periods of time. Eventually, these muscles start to strain and ache and may even limit mobility. Then there’s the compensatory movements made by other muscles to work around the weakened or strained muscles which eventually strains those muscles too. Thus, Anxiety Sisters often ache “all over.”
Aside from massage, heating pads, Tiger Balm and over-the-counter pain meds, one really effective way to deal with muscle tension and pain is a process called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). A form of meditation, PMR requires you to lie down flat on your back (you can put a pillow under your legs if your back is sore) and then systematically tense and relax each muscle in your body. Be sure not to tense the muscles that cause you real pain—you don’t want to injure yourself.
I like to start with my forehead, but you can start anywhere you like. To tighten your forehead muscles, raise your eyebrows as high as you can and hold it for 5 seconds (you can count aloud if you like). Then release your eyebrows and feel your whole upper face relax. It is wonderful! Pause for a few moments to take a nice deep breath. Then do your lower face by smiling as hard as you can and holding for 5 seconds, feeling your cheeks tense up. Once again, release. Pause for a breath, then move to your eyes—squeeze them shut for 5 seconds and then release. Your whole face should feel so much softer and more relaxed.
Moving on to your neck, look up at the ceiling, letting your head slide back. Hold for 5 seconds and release. Next, tighten your shoulder muscles by trying to get them to touch your ears (shrugging) and hold for 5 seconds. Then move to your upper back: tighten the muscles by pulling your shoulder blades together and holding. Once again, release. Continue progressing down your body, tensing each muscle group for 5 seconds and releasing. Pause between body parts to take a nice deep breath. Go all the way to your toes, which you should flex for 5 seconds and release. Then point them for 5 seconds and release. By the time you are finished, your muscles should be pretty limp. As a bonus, you will be focused on your body and not on your mind, so your anxiety should be on hiatus, even just for a short while.
Not only is this a great exercise for adult anxiety sufferers, but also it is wonderful for kids who are naturally so in touch with their bodies. Mags and I encourage teachers to start the day or the period after lunch/recess with PMR. Students love it, particularly if the teacher has a soothing voice, and it really calms everyone (including the teacher) down.
If you would like to try this technique, you can click here to listen to our free guided PMR.