By Farhad Manjoo
Sometime in 2021, I learned how to do something that I suspect will greatly improve how I deal with what already looks to be a harrowing 2022. This thing I learned sounds trivial, a practice so simple you’d think there’d be no need for special instruction — which is probably why a lot of us go through life not knowing that there is a particular technique to getting it right.
What is this dark art? I learned the proper way to relax.
I don’t mean that I discovered the benefits of taking it easy or of remaining calm in the face of adversity and letting life’s troubles slide off my back. I mean it more literally: I learned how to relax my muscles, to purposefully, systematically isolate each part of my body and loosen the meat on my bones.
And I learned that doing so regularly, once or several times a day, can be more or less instantly life changing. For me, deliberate muscle relaxation immediately reduces fatigue, stress and anxiety. It creates a kind of allover refreshed feeling that can be attained nearly anywhere and at any time. And it gets more effective the more I do it.
I have come to think of relaxation as a skill; the more I relax, the better I learn which parts of my body tend to become tense, what that tension feels like and how to unlock that tension with a quick flick of the mind.
This might sound like New Age nonsense, but the benefits of muscle relaxation have been studied for decades, and research has found that versions of the practice may mitigate a wide range of physical and mental conditions — among them generalized anxiety disorder, hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, chronic pain, postpartum depression, some symptoms of schizophrenia, some side effects of cancer treatment, stress among students and anger and aggression in adolescents.
But enough about what relaxation does. Here’s how to do it. One of the most widely used methods is known as progressive muscle relaxation, which was developed early last century by Edmund Jacobson, a medical doctor who pioneered research into the connection between physical tension and mental well-being.
Jacobson’s insight was that a moderately tense muscle is indistinct — that is, one often does not notice, in ordinary life, that certain muscles are in a state of tension. His method for relaxation is thus a two-step process. First, learn to recognize what a particular muscle feels like when it is flexed. Then, focusing on that muscle in the flexed state, do the opposite of flexing: Relax.
When you’re starting out with muscle relaxation, it can be helpful to set aside time and space to do it. Find 10 or 15 minutes in the day when you’re unlikely to be disturbed. Look for a quiet spot where you can lie down on a bed or sit on a couch. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths.
Now begin: Start at your extremities — say, your hands. Clench them and focus your mind on what that feels like. What is the physical sensation of a clenched fist? Which muscles are activated, and what does their activation feel like? After you have spent a few seconds focusing on the clench, you will be able to do the opposite. As you exhale (I’ve found that relaxation is best achieved on an out breath), gently unclench your fist. Let go of the tension. Feel your hand loosening, becoming heavy, falling into relaxation.
After repeating this a few times, you can move on to other parts. Your arms: Flex your biceps, feel the flex and then let go. Your shoulders: Shrug, then unshrug. Your mouth: Smile wide and feel the pull of your smile muscles, then let your smile go limp. Go on like this through your whole body, tensing and relaxing, and by the end of it, I promise, you’ll notice something. At first, it may be just a sense of calm, but the more you do it, the deeper into relaxation you’ll fall, eventually reaching a state of such blissful ease that it can feel hard to stop. On a weeklong beach vacation last summer, I spent an hour or more each day just relaxing — reveling in the euphoria of a body at maximum slack.
Muscle relaxation has also become my go-to way of going to bed. I used to have a lot of trouble falling asleep; now I lie down, breathe in and out in a slow rhythm and focus on letting all tension flow out of my limbs. I usually fall asleep within 20 minutes.
A few years ago, I wrote about how daily meditation had helped me cope with the chaos of digital life. I still meditate quite often, but I recognize that meditation is not for everyone. Many people find it close to impossible to quiet the mind; a lot of people told me they found the practice so hard that they gave up after one or two sessions.
Muscle relaxation is related to meditation — quieting the body is an important part of quieting the mind — but it is much easier to get into and a lot more portable. After your first few practices, you’ll begin to achieve mastery over your tension, to sense how you’re unconsciously tightening parts of your body during the course of a day.
Once you begin to recognize that feeling, muscle relaxation can become an allover, all-the-time activity. Unless you’re operating heavy machinery, being pursued by a bear or otherwise facing imminent danger, you can generally relax whenever you like.
I find myself consciously relaxing everywhere, anytime — in the checkout line at the supermarket, say, or while on hold with my insurance company. And now that I’m done singing the praises of relaxation, I suppose I’ll go off to relax right now.