What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation for sleep and can it ease insomnia?

A woman sleeps on her back after practising Progressive Muscle Relaxation for sleep
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a technique that can help control insomnia, as well as stress and anxiety, all of which can stop you from falling asleep easily. In fact, nighttime is when you might see your symptoms amplified.

Even if you have the best mattress for your body and sleep needs, and the calmest, coolest, quietest bedroom, none of those things can compete with a worried mind. Progressive Muscle Relaxation, however, is a trusted sleep technique that can help you relax for sleep. 

Here we'll walk you through everything you need to know about this meditation-based technique, including how it works, how to use it, and how it can help you get to sleep easier and faster at night.

What is progressive muscle relaxation for sleep?

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is the practice of tensing then relaxing different muscle groups one by one. Focusing on the sensations of tension and release brings about an awareness of your physical body, which in turn helps to calm your mind, helping you drop into a mindset where you can fall asleep easier. 

Relaxing your muscles signals to your body that it’s time to unwind and prepare for sleep

The technique was originally developed in the 1920s by Dr Edmund Jacobson, who observed that intentionally tensing and relaxing 14 different muscle groups in the body could induce a state of deep relaxation.

This technique isn’t just good for helping you to get to sleep – it also helps relieve tension within the body, and activates the ‘rest and digest’ part of the brain to reduce mental overwhelm.

How does progressive muscle relaxation for sleep work?

A woman with dark curly hair sleeps on her side in a pink nightdress

(Image credit: Getty Images)

There are three elements of Progressive Muscle Relaxation that can help you to sleep. The first is the physical act of tensing and releasing muscles. This helps to release built-up tension throughout your body, relaxing your muscles which in turn signals to your body that it’s time to unwind and prepare for sleep.

The second element is mental focus. When you focus on relaxing each muscle group in turn, your mind is distracted from any racing thoughts or worries that may be keeping you awake.

Everyone can benefit from Progressive Muscle Relaxation. You can practice it anywhere and there are no strict rules

The third element is deep breathing: as you tense your muscles, you’ll also be taking in a slow, deep breathe that stimulates your vagus nerve. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the vagus nerve plays a big part in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the rest and digest response. 

When the vagus nerve is stimulated it sends signals to your body to slow down your heart rate and promote feelings of calm and peace. Together, these three elements promote physical and mental relaxation which can help you fall asleep faster.

How to use progressive muscle relaxation for sleep

Everyone can benefit from Progressive Muscle Relaxation. You can practice it anywhere and there are no strict rules to follow. Instead, focus on what feels comfortable and enables you to relax fully. 

Below is an outline of how to use Progressive Muscle Relaxation to get to sleep, and there are guided exercises on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, and on wellness apps such as Headspace and Calm.  

Here's how to use Progressive Muscle Relaxation for sleep:

1. Lie down in a quiet room, dimly lit room, you may just want to get into bed and get comfortable.

2. Focus on your breathing, taking long, slow breathes in through the nose so that you feel it in your stomach.

3. You’re then going to focus on just one area of your body at a time. So start by tensing one set of muscles as you inhale slowly. You may want to start with your feet, so lift your toes upward, hold for at least 5 seconds.

4. Then release, breathing out as you do so.

5. Let your muscles fully relax for at least 10 to 20 seconds and pay attention to how your muscles feel before and after.

6. Next move on to the next muscle group, if you started with your feet, that’ll be your calves but the order in which you do it is up to you. 

How does stress affect sleep?

When we're stressed, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline – two hormones that cause the fight-or-flight response to kick in. Those hormones are responsible for prepping your body for what it perceives as an incoming threat. Your breathing quickens, your heart races, and you feel on high alert. All things that make it difficult to relax and fall asleep. 

Stress also heightens overthinking and can lead to racing thoughts, effectively stopping your brain from entering a state conducive to sleep. Stress can also causes frequent night wakings.

This is why techniques such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation can help you get a good night’s sleep if you’re stressed, because it can help relax tight muscles and quiet your mind, helping you to feel calm enough to fall asleep.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by not having enough quality sleep. There are several different types of insomnia. The two most common types of insomnia you’re likely to have heard of are short-term (acute) insomnia, which tends to last for just a few nights or weeks and is often caused by changes in routine, stress or a medical condition. 

There are multiple causes of insomnia, including anxiety and use of screens before bed

The other type is chronic insomnia, which happens for at least three nights per week and consistently lasts for more than three months. This type of insomnia usually can’t be fully explained by another health problem leaving suffers to constantly ask why can’t I sleep?

There are multiple causes of insomnia, including anxiety, use of screens before bed, a poor diet and underlying health conditions. There are also many treatments and techniques available, depending on the type of insomnia you have and the underlying cause. These can range from simple lifestyle changes to implementing good sleep hygiene or learning Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia.

Rachael Penn

Rachael is a freelance journalist based in South Wales who writes about lifestyle, travel, home and technology. She also reviews a variety of products for various publications including Tom’s Guide, CreativeBloq, IdealHome and Woman&Home. When she’s not writing and reviewing products she can be found walking her Sealyham and West Highland terrier dogs or catching up on some cringe-worthy reality tv.