Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation book

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Updated on 23rd October 2020

Relax Your Way to a Better Life:

Using Dr Jacobson’s Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique for physical and mental health

By Renata Taylor-Byrne, Lifestyle Coach-Counsellor

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Preface

“Relaxation is letting go. Letting go of the day. Letting go of our worries. If stress draws us in, binds us, makes us ‘uptight’, relaxation frees us to be ourselves again. Body and mind are so closely connected that if we become anxious we become physically tense, but if we physically relax, we can also reduce our anxiety. Relaxation exercises bring the parasympathetic (or relaxation) branch of our nervous system into play. We calm down.”

Watts and Cooper (1992, Page 127).[1]

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Renata Taylor-Byrne

I wrote this book because I want people to experience for themselves the deep peace, mental calm, health improvement and reduction in anxiety and depression that comes from practising the Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) technique, which was created by Dr Edmund Jacobson. 

Here are two examples of people who were greatly helped by his technique:

– Firstly, a former soldier experiencing intense physical pain.

– And then a college student experiencing strong anxiety, which was affecting her ability to get a decent sleep at night.

The first example: A former US army soldier came to Dr Edmund Jacobson for help with the severe back pain he was experiencing all the time. The pain originated when he was a soldier, and he jumped from a plane to find his parachute would not open, and he crashed to the ground, breaking his back. His US army surgeons managed to save his life, but he was left with severe, chronic back pain. 

What chance do you think this man would have of living a normal life, after this experience?

Not a lot, many people would think.

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The outcome of this soldier’s accident was as follows: Trying to gain relief from the constant pain, he went to see Dr Edmund Jacobson, who was in his Chicago clinic. This man agreed to experiment with the exercises that Dr Jacobson had created – (See Chapter 10 for the list of exercises, and how to do them) – which were designed to teach him about tension in his muscles, and how to reduce and control it. He did the prescribed progressive muscle relaxation exercises for a number of months, until his chronic pain had mostly disappeared.

Then, on a first time visit to a golf course, he started to play a game of golf, and as he did so, some golf professionals watched him. They could see that he had natural talent for the game, and encouraged him to learn the sport properly. He followed their advice and, in time, became one of the most highly rated golf players in the US. (See page 91 of Jacobson’s 1976 book, which is listed in the References, below).

It seems almost miraculous that this man was able to make the recovery of spinal function and physical health described; but then progressive muscle relaxation is a little understood boon to good physical and mental health. 

The Western medical emphasis on (largely ineffective) painkillers (which have serious side effects), and on surgery, which can fail to solve physical problems, leaves open the need for alternative treatments like Dr Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation.

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The second example: A college student had been plagued for a long time by fears of the dark; being on her own; and of fires breaking out, and harming her. Part of the cause was this: Her aunt had been killed in a fire three years earlier, and when she (this young student) tried to get to sleep each night, she had very strong images of scorching fires, and people in flames. This was obviously why she found it very hard to sleep at night; and she felt so vulnerable that she had to have someone in the room while she slept; and she had to have the room illuminated all night. (This case is described in a book by Bernstein, Borkovec and Hazlett-Stevens, 2000, Page 18, also in the References list, below).

Eventually she went to see a therapist, and told the therapist that she had to go and study in another country in seven weeks’ time. She didn’t think she could handle the stress of the travel and the new location, and would have to drop out of the study programme.

How could this student handle the necessary changes needed for her to be able to continue with her academic commitments abroad?

A physical solution for a mental problem

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Dr Jacobson’s PMR system

The therapist treated her with progressive muscle relaxation training (in a shortened form, similar to that in Chapter 10, because of lack of time), and she practised the exercises twice a day herself; the second session each day being at her bedtime. As well as the daily relaxation sessions, she was instructed to gradually reduce the light level in her room – over a period of many days – and to do her second relaxation session in bed before her roommate came in.

The procedure she was following was designed to enable her to become slowly adapted to more challenging situations, which she had previously feared – (a dark room, with no-one else in it) – and she was experiencing these situations in a very relaxed state.

She carefully followed the therapist’s instructions, and, by the time of the third interview, she was able to announce that her fears had greatly diminished, because of her growing skill at using the prescribed exercises to relax her body and mind, and to bring on sleep. Her training sessions and ‘in vivo’ practice[1] – (the gradually darkening room and her increasing ability to feel comfortable going to sleep in a room on her own) – had paid off!

Anti-anxiety medication and CBT would not have produced such radical results. Working through the body is one of the best ways of calming the mind!

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The speed of life has been increasing throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Living in this increasingly tension-creating world leads to physical problems in our bodies, and minds, as people try to cope with the increasingly high levels of stress and strain that life throws at us.

Dr Jacobson discovered that if people learned to conserve their energies, and avoid building up tension in their bodies, then they would be much healthier and happier.

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Have you noticed how animals relax quite easily? A dog, for example, can suddenly and totally stop all activity, and collapse on the floor, like a rag doll. And they do this frequently, every day. And they can spring up with full energy if they are stimulated by some outside event or call.

Have you seen a cat relax? It completely releases all its tensions and yields itself to the experience of the moment, as if luxuriating in the warmth of the sun. And it recharges its energy as it does so.

Most humans, by contrast look tense and strained.  Common signs of tension include: Shoulders too high; spines curled forward; brows furrowed; eyes dilated; breathing too shallow; fists and teeth clenched; and overly-serious, worried facial expressions.

For human beings, the benefits for the body and mind of relaxation are phenomenal. These benefits, which were once part of our birth-right are no longer well known, and urgently need to be rediscovered and restated. And this is what this book does for you. It will present to you a significant amount of evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of this Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) technique.

Understanding tension and relaxation

Dr Art Brownstein described some common myths about the nature of relaxation, and how to achieve it. 

“I am continually amazed at how many people don’t know or never learned how to relax. When I enquire, most people report to me that they need some external prop or activity, such as reading or watching TV, a mind-altering substance such as alcohol or a tranquiliser or a combination of these, to wind down from their busy days and help relieve their tensions. These methods often feel relaxing, but in most instances the mind is still actively engaged.

“Or, at the cost of achieving mental relaxation, consciousness, proper judgement and the body’s health (most commonly the liver’s), are sacrificed. At best, these methods and devices are only temporary and achieve only a small fraction of the relaxation that the healing system needs (in order) to function optimally.” (Brownstein, 2006, Page 362).

Unfortunately, many people are unaware of what living in a high speed culture like ours, in the UK, Europe and/or North America, does to their bodies – and their minds.

Here’s the bad news: Because of the increase in body tensions that living in our stressful, ever-changing environments create, there is an increase in physical disorders and diseases, including: heart disease, (the world’s number 1 killer), anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes and cancer, to name only the most serious illnesses. They are ever-present realities today.

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Here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be like this! We can’t control (or we have very limited control) over the outside world/ other people/ the economy/ public health crises such as Covid 19, and so on. But we can control our own bodies to a significant degree! We can learn to reduce our physical tension, and enjoy a healthier and more enjoyable life. And if we learn to relax properly, and reduce our tension, then our children will model their behaviour on what we do.

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The beginning

In 1908, Dr Edmund Jacobson started finding out about tension in the body, in the laboratories of Harvard University. He established how to measure its presence in the body, and came up with an easily learned technique that had a very wide range of benefits for the body. He studied this subject for seventy years, and set up an institute in Chicago for that purpose.

‘Muscle tension’ describes a condition in which the muscles of the body get stuck in a semi-contracted state for an extended period of time. Muscle tension is typically caused by the physiological effects of stress and can lead to pain and disease.

Even when we think we are at rest, muscle fibres are at least partially contracted, retaining some degree of tension, which is termed muscle tone or tonus. But in chronically stressed individuals, that retained degree of tension is too high, resulting in a constant drain on body energies, and mental capacities.

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About this book…

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This book sets out to teach you how to learn and practice the PMR technique created by Dr Jacobson. However, it begins with the belief that you will not practice this technique unless you fully grasp its effectiveness, so I begin by teaching you about the nature of physical tension; and then move on to how PMR helps with a range of tension-induced problems – of pain, anxiety, and disease. Then, in Chapter 10, I teach you the system of Brief PMR which has evolved in recent years, and which I and my partner have further refined.

The benefits of regular practice of PMR include:

– a return to full health;

– improved sleep;

– reduced pain and illness;

– less worry and anxiety;

– a reduction in the pressures and strains of daily life;

– and a greater capacity to handle the demands of work and/ or academic pressures.

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The rationale behind PMR is explained; and evidence is presented that this system can help you with the following problems:

– Insomnia;

– Stomach and digestive problems;

– Hypertension and heart disease;

– Pain relief and pain management/reduction;

– Generalized anxiety, depression and fatigue;

– Test and exam anxiety;

–  Memory and recall problems;

– Public performance, including sports performance, and musical performance anxiety.

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The scientific research underpinnings of this system are also presented and the book is written in simple, accessible language; and it is designed so that you can go straight to the aspect of relaxation, or the specific problem, that you are most interested in, by checking out the chapter headings.

As I stated earlier, I wrote this book because of apparent widespread ignorance about the healing power of full-body relaxation. I wanted to promote a greater understanding of ‘scientific relaxation’ (meaning ‘neuromuscular relaxation’) as created by Dr Jacobson, which he named Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR).

If we learn to spot when our muscles are tense, and fully experience this in our muscles and our conscious mind – and then let go of the tension – the resulting experience of total relaxation will help us heal; sleep much better; reduce our stress and anxiety; help us perform physical skills more fluently; heal our bodies and minds; and increase our sense of physical and mental well-being and joy in life.

Jacobson considered that it is physically impossible to be nervous, or tense in any part of your body, if, in that part, you are completely relaxed. But in order to reap the rewards of this technique, you need to do it every day, for just a few minutes. It only takes a couple of minutes to do the exercise routine described in Chapter 10; but I recommend that you rest and snooze for a few minutes after completing the tension-relaxation exercises. So, altogether, it only takes about ten to fifteen minutes of your time to eliminate tension and recharge your batteries.

Many people who use this system find that they fall asleep automatically, for a few minutes; and this will really benefit your body and mind, as you may be catching up on a sleep deficit. Slowly and surely your physical and mental energies will increase over time, and transform the quality of your life!

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The benefits of PMR…

Progressive relaxation (PMR) yields a variety of benefits, including:

– Lowered stress levels;

– The development of a feeling of well-being;

– Lowered blood pressure and heart rate;

– Decreased muscle tension;

– Reduced need for oxygen;

– Reduced fatigue and anxiety;

– Improved quality of life and reduced blood pressure among people with heart disease;

– Reduced migraine headaches;

– Reductions in some forms of chronic pain;

– Improved sleep, and insomnia relief;

– Help with smoking cessation;

– Improvement in cognitive (thinking) performance for people with dementia;

– Increasing or activating the production of opiates (or our innate pain killers);

– Promoting optimal immune function.

– Improving sports performance;

– Improving public performance skills for athletes, sportspeople, actors, teachers, students and media presenters;

– And increased mental and physical energy

Furthermore, this system of relaxation is easy to learn and can be used almost anywhere.

Who is this book written for?

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This book is designed to be helpful for:

1. Self- help enthusiasts, who want to learn how to make the most of their physical and mental energy, as they pursue their goals n life.

2. People experiencing pain who have been unaware of how relaxation of their muscles, resulting in reduced physical tension, can lessen the pain they are experiencing.

3. People with tension-induced diseases who want to use alternative approaches to healing their bodies.

4. Professional coaches, counsellors, psychologists, psychotherapists and social workers who want to add elements of progressive muscle relaxation therapy to their normal face to face work with clients.

5. Students starting out on their professional careers who want to learn how to manage their energy, and reduce their anticipatory fears as they face the inevitable exams, presentations, skills assessments and other challenges in their roles.

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6. This book is also for people who need to manage high levels of stress in demanding work roles, including: Being ‘on the front line’ with clients and customers; in stressful and conflict-laden public roles, in their day to day jobs. Plus:  Professional sports people, actors, public speakers, television presenters and those who perform their jobs under public scrutiny, who face intense performance pressure.

Jacobson created a superb technique which is available for everyone. It could be one of the best investments of your time that you ever make: Ten to fifteen minutes a day of energy recharging and tension reduction. And this investment of time (no money!) is ridiculously cheap compared to the cost of alcohol/drugs/tranquilisers – and it has no unhealthy side effects!

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Renata Taylor-Byrne, September 2020

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Contents

Preface…………………………………………… v

Chapter 1: Introduction…………………….. 1

Chapter 2: How tension builds up in your body each day…………………… 7

Chapter 3: The different ways that excessive tension affects your body 13

Chapter 4:  How progressive muscle relaxation cures insomnia…………. 19

Chapter 5: Reducing anxiety in sports & public performance roles:……. 27

Chapter 6:  PMR helps children and adults to handle test anxiety……… 35

Chapter 7: How progressive muscle relaxation makes pain more manageable     41

Chapter 8: Reducing anxiety in various contexts, using progressive muscle relaxation       49

Chapter 9: How progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) fits into a healthy and flourishing lifestyle 59

Chapter 10: How to practice PMR at home………………………….. 67

Chapter 11: Conclusion……………………………….. 73

References…………………………….. 77

Appendix A: An Overview of Progressive Muscle Relaxation……………… 85

Appendix B: How to establish the relaxation habit………………………… 107

Appendix C: The importance of diaphragmatic breathing………………. 119

Appendix D: Some background on Jacobson’s electrical measurement of physical tension              125

Endnotes………………………………. 131

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[1] In behaviour therapy, ‘in vivo exposure’ means directly facing a feared object, situation or activity in real life; which, in the example above, means facing up to the fear of being alone in an increasingly darkened room.

[1] Watts, M. and Cooper, C. (1992) Relax: Dealing with Stress. London: BBC Books.

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Chapter 1 follows below, plus an extract from the start of Chapter 2:

Chapter 1: Introduction

“If you relax your skeletal muscles sufficiently (those over which you have control), the internal muscles tend to relax likewise”.

Jacobson (1976, Page 102)

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Why should physical tension be a problem for us as human beings?

Why does it have a negative effect on the body and the mind?

Dr Edmund Jacobson has a very good theory, based on observing his clients for many years, which explains why the build-up of tension in our bodies is a threat to our health and well-being:

“Tense people spend too much of themselves. Their efforts are excessive instead of economical and efficient. They may succeed, but at unnecessary cost… Open a business, spend your assets extravagantly and what will happen? The answer is ‘You will go broke’ and the moral is: ‘Control your expenditures!’ (Jacobson, 1978).

And many people do ‘go broke’, by burning themselves out.  This is as common in the boardroom as it is on the workshop floor; or on the dole!  People in general over-strain themselves; and fail to recharge their batteries, which depends upon prolonged periods of relaxation of their muscles.

You know how economics works in business, Jacobson says, so why don’t you understand that the same principle applies to your physical and mental assets?

He continues:

“Common sense would say: ‘Your personal energy is your most important asset! Be careful of it! Spend it wisely!’ But people generally use more common sense in business than in their living habits… How do you spend your personal energy? You spend it when you tense your muscles.”  (Jacobson 1978)

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In this book, I will explore the ‘economics’ of energy expenditure; and the costs to us of over-spending our energy. 

This book consists of ten chapters, and four appendices.

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Chapter 2 examines how tension builds up in the body.  It explains how our energy, which we use to carry out the many activities we do each day, is dependent on the food we eat, like petrol is needed for a car engine to function. And if our body’s energies are overused, and we get close to ‘running on empty’, this creates a build-up of tension in the body.

Too many demands on a person’s time can drain the body’s resources, and the build-up of tension in the body sends messages to the brain. This switches on our inbuilt stress response, and causes problems such as fatigue, insomnia, digestion and elimination problems, anxiety, panic attacks, and heart diseases, etc.

One of Jacobson’s major contributions to our understanding of tension and relaxation was his development of a meter which could measure muscular tension.  Until the tension in people’s muscles could be measured electronically, and the results shown to them, they remained unaware of the residual tension which is carried around with them in their bodies, all day, and every day.

In Chapter 3 we take a look at the many different ways that our bodies can be affected by physical tension:  Tension can be stored in the body and produce difficulties with digestion and elimination, create anxiety and depression, and can have a damaging effect on blood pressure and on our arteries. Examples are given through case studies and a description of the physical condition of young American GI’s who sadly lost their lives in the Second World War.

Chapter 4 describes the problem of insomnia, which many people suffer from; and explains the different types, and the main causes, of sleep disturbances – ranging from information overload; the use of stimulants; unprocessed problems; and medications; among others. We explain how insomnia can be eliminated with progressive muscle relaxation, and give case study examples. According to research results. There are different patterns of brain activity going on in the brain scans of good sleepers and sufferers from insomnia, and this gives a clue as to why insomnia happens. The strategies for creating a good night’s sleep are described.

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Chapter 5 explores how difficult it is for people to cope with challenges like the public performance of any sports skill (e.g. football); or of engaging in public speaking roles (such as acting, making speeches, performing music, etc.). When confronted with these kinds of challenges, people often self-medicate in order to feel more confident when under public scrutiny; but this has drawbacks: especially when the skill involves fine motor co-ordination of various muscles. We then look at the use of progressive muscle relaxation, with such public performers; and we reveal the results of various research studies of the effects of PMR on public performance and performers feelings about their work.

Chapter 6 looks at stress in education and training contexts. Regular testing of knowledge and skills is an integral and essential part of the education system, for children and adults. But because of their lack of understanding of how their body handles anticipatory tension – (which is hardly surprising given that this information is not considered worth teaching in many schools) – the whole experience of the exam process can be a real ordeal for children and adults. In this chapter, we look at research projects which were designed to investigate whether progressive muscle relaxation could help people to cope with stress in testing situations.     

Chapter 7 explores the use of PMR to deal with problems of pain management. The anticipation of pain, for example when a pregnant woman is about to deliver her baby, can cause a syndrome called the ‘fear/ tension/ pain’ pattern, and the resulting increase in tension is a hindrance to the delivery process.

– Could Jacobson’s findings about relaxation be of any value to pregnant women? The effect of his research findings was to influence Dr Grantly Dick-Reed, who was a British obstetrician, to create the method called ‘Natural childbirth’ in the UK, to create a form of childbirth which involved greatly reduced tension.

– The alleviation of pain caused by accidents is also explored, in a case study; and the usefulness of scientific relaxation after an operation is investigated, in a research project conducted in Iran.

– Then a research project – which investigated whether progressive muscle relaxation would be of any help to sufferers from multiple sclerosis – is described.

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Chapter 8 explores both anxiety and human memory. It explains how our bodies, in order to survive, have an inbuilt fear mechanism to alert us to threats and dangers. When we sense that we might be physically unsafe, our bodies and minds respond (with fight, flee or freeze signals, including feelings of anxiety and panic). These responses are mostly healthy and helpful.

But we can also learn to fear things that are not harmful in themselves; or to anticipate problems which are unlikely to occur; or to exaggerate the degree of threat or danger represented by a particular signal. Our anxious responses not only innate, but also shaped by our social experience, which arises within our family and community of origin. How can we unlearn these kinds of unhelpful tension habits? A case study showing how this can be achieved is described.

In addition, the potential future threat of economic hardship can devastate the quality of life for people who are facing the prospect of unemployment: because of anxious tension.

And, when people suddenly become unemployed, or under-employed (as has happened throughout the world in 2020 as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic), they may feel a combination of depressive and anxious tension.

And those who have been unemployed for a long time, in a hopeless economic climate, may live the with contestant tension of shame and despair, or anger and hostility.  

Can the practice of progressive muscle relaxation help in these kinds of situation, to relieve anxiety and depression? A 2019 research project conducted in Greece investigated that possibility, and it is summarised in Chapter 8.

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In addition, the positive impact of anxiety-reduction on the ability of our brains to function more effectively – (specifically, to improve our memorizing ability and cognitive skills) – is investigated, with descriptions of three research projects undertaken.

– In 2013, the researchers wanted to see what the effect was of relaxation training on working memory capacity and academic achievements, in adolescents in Tehran.

– In 2016, in America, researchers focussed their investigation on the effectiveness of progressive muscle relaxation on the academic performance of a group of health-science graduate students.

– Then in 2018, some researchers at the University of Illinois experimented with the use of PMR at a US veterinary college. The research was designed to assess whether first year students at the college would benefit in any way from learning and practising progressive muscle relaxation.

Chapter 9 explains why we need three other crucial ingredients to create a healthy and happy life, in addition to progressive muscle relaxation. And it gives reasons and research findings which explain why these four ingredients together are essential.

Chapter 10 contains detailed guidance and instruction on how to learn and practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation in your own home.

Chapter 11 is the conclusion, in which I remind the reader of the journey you have undertaken in this book.

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In addition, I have created four appendices in this book, to give you more understanding of progressive muscle relaxation, and how to make it a part of your life:

In Appendix A, there is a concise overview of progressive muscle relaxation, its development by Dr Jacobson, and its value for people as a way of recovering from illnesses and the strains and pressures of everyday life. 

Appendix B is an essential guide to show you what is involved in changing your habits. This is designed to help you in your acquisition of the daily habit of doing the PMR exercises.

Appendix C is about the importance of deep breathing. This system of diaphragmatic breathing helps to switch off the stress response, and to trigger the relaxation response.  As such, it is a perfect complement to Progressive Muscle Relaxation, and in some of the research studied cited in this book, breathing exercises are combined with the PMR exercises.

And, finally, Appendix D presents some technical, background information about Dr Jacobson’s electrical measurement of physical tension, for those readers who might want to follow up on that aspect of the system.

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Chapter 2: How tension builds up in your body each day

“Learning to be habitually relaxed rather than tense does not mean to become lazy, any more than thrift in business means spending insufficiently”.

Jacobson (1978, page 20)

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Unconscious tension

Most people are not aware of the fact that, as they go through each day, they are constantly using up their energy. This energy comes from the food that we eat. It is slowly processed by the body, into a form which makes it available for the muscles to use, as they go about their daily activities[1].

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Then, in the evening, people may engage in various kinds of entertainment or sports activities; watch TV or go to a cinema or a pub; try to relax; play computer games, etc. These activities also use energy.

In parallel with using up our energy (in work and play), we also accumulate tension. This tension is further exacerbated by a steady bombardment of stress-inducing news, via mobile phones, the TV and newspapers, and from gossip.

Everything we do makes demands on our nervous and physical energy. We constantly use our muscles, which involves contracting them, which makes them shorter, and then relaxing them, which lengthens them again – (but mostly we do not return to full relaxation). The information that is transmitted from our muscles via the nerves is electrical in nature, but it moves more slowly than the electricity we use in our daily lives. And within our muscles there are two sets of nerves: one set of nerves transmits information to the muscles, and the other set of nerves takes information from the muscles to the brain and the spinal cord.

Muscles need fuel

When we tense our muscles, in order to carry out some act, we spend personal energy and this is in the form of increased nerve impulses:

“At every moment you depend on your personal energy expenditures – namely you burn adenosine triphosphate in your muscle fibres, in your nerve cells and fibres and in your brain cells and fibres. In this burning of fuel you resemble a car or an aeroplane, which likewise burns fuel in order to move”. (Jacobson, 1976,[i] Page 11).

People find out for themselves the hard way, when they have used up too much energy – tried to operate with an energy tank that is empty or close to empty – because they develop various physical symptoms of illness. Jacobson wanted to help us to understand how high tension levels cause these unpleasant physical symptoms, like insomnia, high blood pressure, anxiety and cardiovascular problems. We need to understand…

…End of extract.

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[1] This form of energy is called adenosine triphosphate, which is found in all living tissues. The process of muscle contraction breaks this down into Adenosine diphosphate, to fuel the contraction. Thus muscle contraction uses up our personal fuel supply.

[i] Jacobson, E. (1976) You Must Relax: Practical methods for reducing the tensions of modern living. London: Unwin Paperbacks.

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