From school to family life to environmental dangers, stress is an unavoidable part of students’ lives. And without proper coping strategies, stress can negatively affect their academic achievement, health and social-emotional growth.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a simple way to help students manage stress. PMR is a two-step process of alternately tensing and relaxing various muscle groups in an exaggerated, systematic way. And this social-emotional learning activity teaches students how to use PMR to redirect excess energy to a more positive position.

How Muscle Relaxation Eases Stress

First, let’s take a look at exactly how progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) helps to manage stress.

When you’re under stress, your muscles naturally become tense. And although your body is designed to counteract this reaction with a relaxation response, constant stress prevents it from taking effect. As a result, your muscles remain tight, sending a signal to your brain that produces the stress response. And it activates a never-ending cycle of stress and muscle tension.

PMR helps you relax your muscles, which puts you in a state of deep relaxation. And as your muscle tension decreases, any anxious feelings will naturally decrease. Even more, focusing on breathing and tensing and relaxing muscles helps to avert your attention from stressful thoughts and situations.

Try this progressive muscle relaxation exercise to teach students a simple way to manage their stress.

Materials:

  • Yoga mats or beach towels
  • Soothing music: classical music or nature sounds (optional)

Instructions:

  1. Tell students that they will be concentrating on relaxing all of the muscles in their bodies, one group at a time, in an ordered sequence.
  2. This will be done by tensing (also known as contracting) the muscles in all the major groups: the head and neck, shoulders and chest, arms and hands, abdomen, back, buttocks, and legs and feet.
  3. If needed, demonstrate what tensing and relaxing are and clarify the muscle groupings.
  4. Have students sit comfortably in chairs or lie on the floor on beach towels or yoga mats, away from each other.
  5. Have students begin by taking one or two cleansing breaths: closing their eyes, inhaling deeply through their mouths and exhaling slowly through their noses.
  6. Instruct them to keep their eyes closed, focusing and listening to their own bodies.
  7. Have them begin at the head, contracting the muscles in the face, jaw and neck, holding this contraction for three to five seconds and releasing them in order to relax those muscles. Have them repeat this twice for each muscle group. When you have completed each muscle group, ask the students to take two cleansing breaths.
  8. You may proceed with the following: shoulders, arms, hands, chest, back, abdomen, buttocks, legs and feet.
  9. Remind students to pay attention throughout these exercises so they will recognize how their muscles feel when they are tight and when they are relaxed.
  10. Continue with this activity until you have covered all the muscles from the head to the feet.

Wrap up the exercise with a few discussion questions. How did students feel before completing the PMR exercise? How do they feel after completing the exercise? What was most challenging about tensing and relaxing their muscles? How did their thoughts change following the exercise? The goal is to equip students with a simple coping strategy to use when stressful situations arise.

For similar activities, check out Healthy Breaks Wellness Activities for the Classroom.