Progressive Relaxation: Basic But Worth It - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

I often ask clients throughout our work together to check in with their body and notice what they are physically feeling. This is easy for some people (and a welcome move away from any question about emotions), but extraordinarily difficult for others. In fact, I’ve had people get visibly angry at me for asking it.

Some are angry because they just can’t do it. Some are angry because it just seems so basic.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most neglected ones as well. And Progressive Relaxation is one of these.

Progressive Relaxation

Listen, you can’t get much more basic than tensing and releasing the different muscle groups in your body. That’s it. Nothing fancy. You don’t need a guided recording to take you through this. You start with your feet and toes, tense for ten seconds, release. Then you move up to your calves, etc., finishing at the top of your head.

The thing is, you need to actually do it, and do it regularly, if you want the benefits from it.

And what are the benefits you ask?

First off, it’s not what will cure your anxiety/depression/trauma/anger. But it will absolutely help you. Look, it’s become pretty woo-woo to talk about the mind-body connection, I know. But the thing is, we can understand our emotions–and that means we can be less controlled by them–if we know what our body is doing and what clues it’s giving us about ourselves.

Becoming Curious

Bessel van der Kolk talks about the shift from being angry with ourselves to becoming curious about what’s happening in our bodies. This allows us to get a break from judging our bad back, or our tight shoulders, and gives us permission to investigate what those parts of ourselves are telling us.

When I’m working with people who are apt to get angry pretty quickly and then express it in unhealthy ways, one of the first things we’re doing to get that worked on is to become aware of how our body knows we are getting angry. Anger, like many emotions, rarely just pops up out of nowhere. People with anger issues find that they didn’t suddenly get angry at their boss for making them redo what they spent the morning working on. Upon reflection they find that they were annoyed at the whistling co-worker (or the co-worker who consistently forgets to mute themselves), and they were irritated by their partner reminding them, yet again, that they are supposed to take the trash out, and that they are exhausted that they got woken up early by their neighbor who decided to tromp across the floor at 5am for some unknown reason!

What we come to realize is that we’ve been “cooking” for some time and a good way to do that is to  know all the physical signs of our anger.

  • The heart racing at your boss’ condescension
  • The tightening of a fist for the non-muting co worker
  • The hot face after the garbage reminding partner
  • The pain behind the eyes from the heavy footed neighbor

Once a client can specify these things, they’ve come very far in in addressing their “anger problem” and it’s similar with other issues regarding difficult (and some not-so-difficult) emotions.

Some people, and you may be one of them, would be unable to locate these physical signs of anger in themselves (and you can follow that link if you want to know what to do with those physical signs). Maybe you’re so caught up in the emotion that you’re not paying attention to your body, or maybe mapping an emotion to a physical sensation just isn’t how you operate.

That’s fine–that’s what Progressive Relaxation is for. And not just for anger. Substitute sadness, jealousy, shame, anxiety, and fear and with a little investigation we can know how our bodies respond to this.

How Often and When?

I recommend to my clients that they do Prog Rel three times a day, and it can be for as little or as long as the time you have.

If you’re someone who needs a schedule to get things done, I recommend doing it

  1. before you get out of bed in the morning,
  2. right when you get into bed at night,
  3. and schedule a reminder for yourself somewhere mid-day.

You can do this in ten minutes, or you can do it for two–up to you. Just do it regularly so you become used to tensing and releasing the muscle groups in your body. You can do it in public (you’ll just be sure not to exaggerate the tensing of your facial muscles unless you’re hoping to keep people away from you) or on your own–even during a Zoom meeting if you like.

I wouldn’t recommend doing this for the first time during a rough situation, but you’ll certainly work up to that when you realize the benefits.

Oh, and my favorite part of this exercise is the releasing: look, we know how to create tension for ourselves, but most of us don’t take time to really feel what it’s like to let go.

Try this:

Right now, just take one of your hands and make a tight fist–don’t hurt yourself, but tighten up–count to ten (do it slowly).

Now open your hand.

Feel that: you might not have had any tension in your hand before, but you should be able to feel that relief of letting go. Like you’re some wizard sending a spell out of your palm. (At least that’s what it feels like to me).

And there you have it. Just start with your feet and move on up to the top of your head. Ok, if you really want someone to walk you through it just google ‘progressive relaxation’ and there’ll be lots of people ready to do that for you, but I have faith you can do this one on your own.

Yes, it’s that basic.

Yes, it’s that necessary.

If you’d like to talk more about this or whatever you’re dealing with, feel free to contact me to set up a free phone consult.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity and can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion.