Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A Natural Form of Relief

Alternative relief

Not all things that ease the effects of cancer treatment are a medicine or a chemical.  Julie Silver, MD, a cancer rehab physician with Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, MA, and a cancer survivor herself, often recommends her patients try progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), a simple meditation technique that helps relax the body and calm the mind. “PMR can have wonderful physical and emotional effects for cancer patients,” she says. “It's safe and easy to use and the more you practice it, the greater the benefits.”


There’s science to back up Silver’s recommendations. One 2010 Turkish study found that breast cancer patients who took up the practice of PMR slept better and felt less fatigued during treatment. In a 2005 South Korean investigation, breast cancer patients who received PMR training reported lower levels of anxiety and depression than the untrained patients and enjoyed a higher quality of life even six months after the study completed.

Get started

Silver suggests doing PMR for 10-15 minutes daily, though she notes that those with high blood pressure should check in with their doctor before they give it a try. You can do PMR sessions at home or to ease anxiety and discomfort during treatment. Here’s how to do it:

Set aside 15 uninterrupted minutes in a quiet, distraction-free location. Dim the lights. Close your eyes. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.

  • Start with your facial muscles. Clench your jaw, squeeze your eyes shut and knit your eyebrows together. Hold on to this tension for 10 slow counts noticing the gradual buildup of tightness in your facial muscles. When you’ve finished counting, gently relax your face. Rest for 10 slow counts before moving on to the next area, focusing on the feeling of looseness and lightness in the muscles of your face; imagine the tension flowing away from you like a gently running stream.
  • Now move through the rest of your body in the following order: neck and shoulders, upper arm, hand, stomach and back, buttocks, upper leg, lower leg, and finally, foot.
  • For hands, arms, feet and legs, do this exercise on the right side first. When you’ve completed the entire sequence, move through the entire progression again with your left side. You will tighten and release centralized areas—shoulders, abdomen and buttocks—twice.  
  • Take a moment to notice how different a muscle feels when it’s relaxed versus when it’s tensed. Concentrate on this feeling so you can recall it during stressed moments in your life.  
  • Silver says you can reinforce the lessons learned from PMR by either thinking or saying the word “relax” on the tenth count of each muscle’s tightening and relaxation phase. Then, you can say this word to yourself whenever you feel anxious or tense—and it will help you elicit feelings of calmness and serenity.

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