An extract from: Taylor-Byrne, R.E. (2020) Relax Your Way to a Better Life: Using Dr Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation technique for physical and mental health. Hebden Bridge: The Institute for E-CENT Publications.
Chapter 3: The different ways that excessive tension affects your body
“Experience has shown that high tension living can be responsible for symptoms and complaints (resulting in) over-activity in each and every system of the body”.
In this chapter the different signs and symptoms of excessive tension in the body will be described.
Jacobson gives an example in his book – You Must Relax (1976) – of how three different people – a soldier in a battle; a student working in an exam room; or a runner taking part in a marathon; would all have high levels of physical tension. And if they were wired up so the electrical impulses could be recorded, then this would be confirmed by the results, showing a high number of electrical impulses.
What we will look at are some examples of the specific messages that we get from our bodies when we are carrying a lot of tension, in the form of illnesses or stress symptoms.
Firstly, high levels of tension can cause feelings of depression and anxiety:
How and why to use progressive muscle relaxation
Here is a short description of one of Jacobson’s clients who was suffering from depression and anxiety: Mrs Hardy was a client that Jacobson treated who had been suffering from cyclothymic depression. (This is a type of mood pattern which is characterised by alternating, short episodes of depression and hypomania in a milder form than that of bipolar disorder). Her depression had lasted for several years. She was worried about her age, and how long she would live, and she was convinced that she would never be able to stop worrying about it. As a result, she had very high levels of physical tension.
Jacobson taught her to notice when she was tensing the muscles in her body and gradually, as a result of daily practice, she began to spot the signs of tension in her body and when she was tensing her muscles unnecessarily.
She learned her new relaxation habit lying down and also in her daily life with her family as she cooked, cleaned and ran the home. And as she did this she realised that no-one was forcing her to tense up part of her body – she had been doing it herself all the time.
Jacobson stated: “She was doing something with her muscles just as definitely as if she were sweeping a room or washing the dishes. Anxiety was an act which (at least in part) she was performing and need not perform.” (Page 40).
What she was doing with her muscles became apparent to her, when she had a very low level of tension in her muscles and she discovered the following: “… To her surprise, perhaps for the first time in years, she found herself free for the moment from the severe anxiety which previously had oppressed her constantly.” (Jacobson, 1976)
As she continued with her treatment, she was advised to keep practising the muscle relaxation exercises. And the outcome was that she stopped worrying about the difficulties of getting older.
When her level of tension was measured electronically, it confirmed her progress – she was able to go back to the job that she had given up doing, handle money problems easily, and she was able to join her husband in his business.
The final comment on how she had changed as a result of the relaxation exercises was expressed by Jacobson as follows: “She became free of the fears that had held her as a slave. She became confident, self-assured and cheerful.” (Jacobson, 1976, Page 41).
Secondly, tension can affect the stomach and digestive system in a variety of ways
Walter Cannon (1871 – 1945), was an American physiologist, and Professor at the Harvard Medical School and was Jacobson’s physiology teacher. From his research into the digestive tracts of cats and dogs, he was able to show, from the equipment that he had devised, that X rays of these animals’ digestive tracts revealed evidence of tension levels when they saw each other.
The research showed that when animals or humans are scared, angry or upset, then their digestion ceases. The energy saved by the temporary ending of the digestive process gives them the ability to run away (or to fight or freeze). Stated Jacobson (2011):
“Long clinical experience has led me to believe that the stomach, intestines and oesophagus (or throat) play a direct role in our emotions as well as our digestions”. (Page 120)
Jacobson considered that there was a very close, mutually influencing relationship between the bodily parts (the organs) that were located in the body cavity, and the surrounding muscles of the body. And that when we relax our muscles, this affects our internal organs.
He gave the example in his book – ‘Tension control for Business men’ (2011) – of a physician who had been suffering a great deal of distress for a number of years from a duodenal ulcer which had partly obstructed the gastroduodenal junction (at the beginning of the small intestine). He had been advised to have surgery, but he wanted to experiment with relaxation methods first, to see if they could help. He was experiencing muscle cramps, stomach pain, and anxiety and tension headaches, and his bowel movements had been affected. These symptoms were apparently largely a result of the fact that he had been on medication to relax himself and on an ulcer treatment diet.
In the year 1956, in May, he began to learn Jacobson’s tension control techniques, and he practised them every day. And by November of that year he was seeing very constructive changes in his body:
“I use the (PMR) technique now…. When I was all keyed up on a business trip, I returned home, practised for an hour, and was a new person.” (Page 121).
Slowly he recovered and his anxiety levels dropped so that he was able to take plane journeys without the recurring feelings of apprehension that had previously affected him before and during business flights. He had eliminated his medication and he continued to feel better. When Jacobson saw him again in 1962, he had been in good health for many years and was working in new roles in medical organisations.
Thirdly, accumulating tension because of working in a high stress environment can lead to hypertension and heart disease
“Relaxation reduces the heightened physical arousal, thereby dampening responses to stress and lowering blood pressure levels”
Bernstein, Borkovec and Hazlett-Stevens. (2000)
When people are in a stressful environment, they become physically aroused, and their blood pressure increases. The problem with continual increased blood pressure is that if it persists, then it can bring about cardiovascular problems.[i]
Jacobson (1978)[ii] gives a powerful example of how tension and heart attacks are connected. He described the findings of autopsies of 300 GI’s, killed in combat in the North Korean war. The autopsies were conducted by Major William F. Enos and his colleagues. Although the average age of the soldiers was in the early twenties, the amount of diseased coronary arteries totalled around 77%.
And the medical examiners were unable to comprehend the evidence that these G I’s had managed to survive during the warfare as long as they had done, before they were struck down. He considered that it would be very difficult, considering their age, to blame the state of their coronary arteries on their diet. Major Enos concluded that the soldiers’ bodies were badly affected by the “wear and tear” on the arteries’ inner layers. Although the major does not say specifically what was responsible for the degeneration of the young soldier’s arteries, Jacobson (1978) notes that:
“While he does not discuss the tense life at war as leading to the wear and tear and stress, his results contrast greatly with what we know of the normal healthy hearts on the average in American boys in civilian life who have undergone no such strains.” (Page 36).
In fact, Jacobson considered that even though tension isn’t the only cause of the build-up of heart disease, it does have a part to play which he thought had been dismissed by traditional health authorities in America.
He gives an example in the 5th edition of his book – You Must Relax, (1978) – of a client of his, who was an accountant. The man was 34, and he had high blood pressure with palpitations, first degree heart block[iii] and anxiety. Following instructions from Jacobson in scientific relaxation, the ‘heart block’ and other symptoms of physical tension disappeared.
Then his client took a two week holiday and stated that it would be relaxing, and not involve any strenuous activity, just fishing However, when he came back from his allegedly ‘relaxing’ holiday, his blood pressure had risen, as well as other serious symptoms of ill health, and it took him several months of treatment before his body showed that he had recovered from his holiday.
There are several research studies which confirm the effectiveness of scientific relaxation in this kind of context:
– In 2003, the researchers Sheila Sheu, Barbara Irvin, Huey–Shyan Lin and Chun–Lin Mar, investigated the effects of this technique on patients who had essential hypertension in Taiwan.[iv] They recruited forty patients from an outpatient’s clinic for sufferers from hypertension, and twenty of the clients received progressive muscle relaxation training for one session a week and practised at home every day for four weeks.
The result of this research study was that for those participants who had had the relaxation training, there was an instantaneous drop in their blood pressure measures and pulse rates. In addition, the clients had a reduced level of arousal to potential stressors, and their sense of their own physical health and well-being was increased. This result led the researchers to conclude that this technique was valuable for those patients who had essential hypertension.
– A later study, conducted in 2018,[v] was led by A. Cahyati et.al (2020). This study investigated whether the experience of progressive muscle relaxation would have a beneficial effect on patients in the General Hospital of Ciamis, in Indonesia, who had coronary heart disease. The research project was designed to see if the level of oxygen saturation of the blood was affected by this relaxation technique. And the results of the experiment clearly showed an increase in the participants’ oxygen blood saturation levels.
For more information on this subject, please click this link: Relax Your Way to a Better Life: Using Dr Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation technique for physical and mental health
[i] Bernstein, D.A., Borkovec, T.D., and Hazlett-Stevens, H. (2000) New Directions in Progressive Relaxation Training. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.
[ii] Jacobson, E. (1978) You must Relax: Practical Methods for Reducing the Tensions of Modern Living. (5th Ed.)USA: McGraw Hill Book Company.
[iii] “Heart block is a condition where the heart beats more slowly or with an abnormal rhythm. It’s caused by a problem with the electrical pulses that control how your heart beats. Symptoms depend on which type of heart block you have. The least serious type, 1st-degree heart block, may not cause any symptoms.” Source: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heart-block/
[iv] Sheu, S. Irvin, B.L., Lin, H.S. and Mar, C.L. Effects of progressive muscle relaxation on blood pressure and psychosocial status for clients with essential hypertension in Taiwan. Holistic Nursing Practice: January-February 2003 – Volume 17 – Issue 1 – p 41-47. DOI: 10.1097/000200301000-00009 04650-
[v] Cahyati, A., Herlania, L. and Februanti, S. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) enhances oxygen saturation in patients of coronary heart disease. Journal of Physics Conference Series. Volume 147(2020) Health, Medical, Pharmacy and Technology. Doi: 10.1088/1742-6596/1477/6/062018.