In the last decade, the boom in the prescription of relaxation techniques in the field of clinical psychology and health is attributed to the palpable evidence of an acceleration in the pace of life that human beings have been incorporating as a usual form of daily operation.

This type of practice is intended to act not only as a type of intervention in reducing personal stress, but also as an effective alternative in preventing the appearance of stress. Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation is one of the most used ; next we will see its characteristics, its phases and how it is carried out.

Fundamentals of Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation is considered to be the opposite of the stress or tension response.

In the stress response, an activation of the sympathetic branch of the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) occurs. The ANS is the part of the body that controls involuntary actions , such as heart and respiratory rate, contraction and dilation of blood vessels, digestion, salivation, sweating, etc.

The Antonomo Nervous System is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (which prepares the individual for action) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which performs functions opposite to the former such as maintaining a bodily state of rest after exertion, lowering the body’s stress level).

The relaxation produces an activation of the parasympathetic branch of the ANS. Therefore, relaxation can be considered as a state of hypoactivation.

What is relaxation?

The definition given by the psychology of emotions proposes to conceptualize relaxation as the physiological, subjective and behavioral state experienced during the occurrence of an intense emotion but of opposite sign (especially regarding unpleasant emotions such as anger, stress or aggressiveness). Therefore, relaxation allows to counteract the physiological activation effects derived from this type of emotions, as well as it becomes a very useful resource to reduce anxiety, fears or depression symptoms.

Other benefits of relaxation consist of: improvement of blood flow, blood pressure and heart rate, optimization of the function of brain waves, regulation of the breathing rhythm, promotes muscle relaxation, increasing the feeling of calm and general vitality, allowing a higher level of attention. In short, relaxation has the ability to provide the body with a state of general welfare by facilitating proper synchronization between the physiological and psychological functioning of the individual.

More specifically, relaxation has the following fundamental objectives: reducing or eliminating daily tensions, increasing general well-being, promoting self-knowledge, increasing self-esteem, enhancing the performance of the subject’s activity, improving the ability to face up to disturbing situations or specific personal conflicts, and, as a result, opting for more satisfactory interpersonal relationships.

General considerations of the procedures

First of all, one aspect that must be taken into account when putting this type of technique into practice is the fact that is a set of learnings that will be perfected as they are applied. The process requires a training phase that allows for increasingly better results after the exercises, so practice is an essential requirement for evaluating its effectiveness.

The time spent on relaxation exercises ranges from 30-40 minutes a day for the first two weeks and then reduces the duration of the activity to about 10 minutes or spaced out every other day, for example.

When putting the training into practice, it should be taken into account that relaxation should be carried out as a priority in a quiet and silent room , away from interruptions, and with a pleasant temperature and moderate light (although it is not exclusive). In addition, it is recommended that the person wear comfortable and loose clothing.

Effects of these techniques

When the objective of relaxation is to calm the high physiological activation in an intense anxious situation, shorter relaxation procedures are used, adapted to the type of situation in question. When the aim is to lower the level of general activation, it is recommended to perform the most extensive exercise in terms of time in a calm context free from environmental stimulation.

As the training phase is completed, the individual increases his or her perception of self-efficacy in controlling stressful situations and in maintaining a relaxed general state of high well-being, decreasing the likelihood that new episodes of increased anxiety will occur.

The training also allows for greater self-control of disturbing thoughts , since, as indicated above, the physiological and psychological states are closely related. Usually, relaxation techniques are applied as one more component of a more complete psychological intervention where the emotional, cognitive and behavioural areas are worked on more deeply.

On the other hand, it should be noted that depending on the individual, the practice of relaxation can cause him to experience new sensations that are not familiar to him. Since this is a totally habitual aspect, it is only recommended that the person knows the type of reactions that can take place previously and the reason why they occur. Some of these sensations may consist of: heaviness of a part of the body or the opposite, sensation of lightness; sensation of corkiness in the extremities; as well as tingling, sensation of immobility or abandonment of the body, etc.

Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation

This technique was developed in 1929 and today is one of the most used. It consists of learning to tighten and relax the different muscle groups of the body .

Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation is based on the fact that the stress response generates a series of thoughts and behaviors that cause muscle tension in the person . This tension increases the subjective perception of anxiety. Progressive relaxation reduces this muscular tension, and with it the sensation of anxiety.

On a procedural level, training is carried out over a minimum of seven weeks. During this period, the user will have to learn to tighten and relax 16 muscle groups throughout the body: hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, forehead, eyes, jaw, throat, lips, neck, neck, back, chest, abdomen, legs (thighs and calves).

The stress phase is carried out for the user to learn to perceive the sensations associated with the appearance of anxiety or tension, these sensations being those that will indicate to the person that they have to relax. This muscular tension allows the muscles to relax even more than if they had relaxed previously. At the end of the training, you will learn to relax the muscles directly without putting them under tension beforehand.


In Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation the following phases are usually followed :

  1. During the first two weeks, you will practice every day tensing and then relaxing the 16 muscle groups.
  2. In the third week, the time to relax is reduced.
  3. During the fourth week, you learn to relax directly without putting your muscles under tension beforehand.
  4. In the fifth and sixth week you learn to be relaxed while doing various activities while sitting and also while standing and walking.
  5. In the last week, quick relaxation is practiced many times a day in non-stressful situations.
  6. Finally, relaxation begins to be applied in anxiety-provoking situations, starting with those that cause less anxiety. Once the anxiety is reduced in this situation, the next step is taken.


More specifically, in each tension-distention exercise the user must tense a muscle group for about five to eight seconds . Afterwards, he will focus his attention on the sensation he is experiencing in the face of this muscular tension. After these seconds, the person will relax this muscle group for ten or fifteen seconds, and then concentrate on the sensations experienced in the relaxed area.

As for the posture to be maintained during the activity , this can be done in three different positions:

  • Sitting in an armchair, with his head supported, as well as his back and feet resting on the floor. The arms are relaxed on the thighs.
  • Lying on a hard surface, to have the whole body supported and the head slightly raised.
  • Posture of the coachman, sitting on a chair, with his body leaning forward, his head resting on his chest and his arms on his legs.

Application of Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation

Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation focuses on teaching the practitioner to distinguish between the feeling of tension and relaxation in the different parts of the body where the training is distributed, in total 16 muscle groups.

From that moment on, the subject will be able to control in an optimal way which daily situations provoke each of the sensations of tension-distention and how to proceed in order to loosen the muscle groups in the case of an excess of tension. The tense situations usually, when related to less pleasant emotions, decrease with the training , so that the state of emotional and psychological well-being of the individual tends to increase progressively.


The following formulas can be used as examples of application instructions:

In a comfortable, quiet place with little distracting stimulation, some calm inducing phrases are introduced such as “You are comfortable and relaxed, you can hear your breathing, noises are heard only silence Later, starting to work the first muscle group, the following instructions are followed:

1. Direct your attention to the right arm , to the right hand in particular, close it, press it tightly, and observe the tension in the hand, and in the forearm (for about 5 or 8 seconds).

2. Stop straining , relax your hand and let it rest where it is. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation (10-15 seconds).

3. Close your right fist again tightly and feel the tension in your hand and forearm, observe it carefully (10-15 seconds).

4. And now loosens the muscles and stops the force allowing the fingers to relax. Notice once again the difference between muscle tension and relaxation (10-15 seconds).

And so on with the other muscle groups: hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, forehead, eyes, jaw, throat, lips, neck, nape of the neck, back, chest, abdomen, legs (thighs and calves).

In short, training in Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation requires, as has been observed, the systematic, structured and well-sequenced application of the set of procedures that have been set out in order to achieve an adequate level of effectiveness. It is understood, therefore, that it is the practice maintained over time that will allow a greater perfection in its realization, so that this type of exercise is internalized as a new daily habit.

Bibliographic references:

  • Caution JR, Groden J. Relaxation techniques (1985. Practical manual for adults, children and special education). Barcelona: Martínez Roca.
  • Olivares, J. Y Mendez, F. X. (2008). Behavior modification techniques. Madrid: Biblioteca nueva.