Headaches, jaw pain, neck ache. If you regularly experience symptoms like these, stress may be getting the best of you. “When under stress people tend to hold their body very tight, which can start a cascade of all kinds of issues with pain and feeling unable to relax, and it really feeds into anxiety,” says Beth Salcedo, M.D., medical director of The Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington D.C. and president elect of Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
According to the American Psychological Association, muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress. But here’s the good news: That connection works in the opposite direction as well—research shows eliminating muscle tension can help combat stress.
There are a number of different ways to alleviate muscle tension, but one simple solution (that your Fitbit Charge 2 can help you with!) is progressive muscle relaxation, a nearly 100-year-old mind-body technique that involves slowly tensing and relaxing muscle groups.
“You deliberately tense your muscles to feel what that feels like, and then release that tension to feel what that feels like,” says Salcedo. In doing so, you begin to learn how you feel when you’re tense versus how you feel when you’re relaxed. “It’s impossible to be relaxed and tense at the same time, so if you can figure out how to relax the muscles of your body, that’s almost half the battle,” says Salcedo.
When to Use Progressive Muscle Relaxation
One session of progressive muscle relaxation can help you chill—”The very first time I did this, I completely relaxed,” says Salcedo. “I remember that I didn’t think I could get up out of the chair I was in, I felt almost like I was part of the furniture.”—but if you want to learn how to relax outside of a session (like before an important work presentation), you have to practice.
Depending on how stressed you are, Salcedo recommends doing progressive muscle relaxation two or three times a day for a week or two. Once you get the hang of it, you can reduce your practice to once a day or once every other day—whatever feels manageable for you.
“Starting out the day with it is a wonderful thing,” says Salcedo. “A lot of people are super anxious in the morning, because they’re anticipating a difficult day. If you could spend 10 to 15, or even 20 minutes doing progressive muscle relaxation before you get out of bed that would be great.”
“Another good time to do it, if possible, is right before you start your evening,” says Salcedo. “For parents who leave work and have to go home and cook dinner and deal with kids and homework and bedtime rituals, starting that evening process with progressive muscle relaxation would be great. And then if they could do a third time, before bed would be ideal.”
How to Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation
First things first, silence your cell phone, close any doors, and get into a comfortable position where you won’t be disturbed or have to move around a lot, like a chair, recliner, or even the floor if it won’t encourage you to fall asleep.
Next, take in a few deep breaths and then slowly release them. “It’s important that you’re breathing in a slow and steady controlled manner before you get started,” says Salcedo, as that also helps manage stress and anxiety. (If you need some help the Relax function on Fitbit Blaze and Fitbit Charge 2 will guide you through a two- or five-minute deep-breathing session that’s personalized to your current heart rate.)
Once you’re comfortable and your breathing is steady, you can begin the progressive muscle relaxation. Here’s how it works: Pick one muscle group (or body part) and tighten it as much as you can without straining. Sit with that sensation and pay attention to what it feels like for 10 to 15 seconds before releasing the tension. Rest for five to 10 seconds and then move on to the next muscle group.
“It’s probably smart to start with your head and move down just out of ease, but you can get the same effect no matter what order you go in,” says Salcedo. Many people find it helpful to follow an audio guide, like Salcedo’s Progressive Muscle Relaxation album, or written instructions that will tell you exactly which muscles to focus on and how to tense them. You can also set the interval timer on your Charge 2 so that it vibrates when it’s time to switch muscle groups.
Depending on which guide you use, your total session time may vary, but Salcedo recommends aiming for at least 10 minutes. “That would be a minimum,” says Salcedo. “Fifteen to 20 minutes is a great session if you can do it.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.