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Want to destress your mind? Start with your body. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a practice where you methodically tense and release your muscles to help unwind. Studies show it can reduce anxiety, help you get better sleep and lower depression levels.
As a war correspondent and an Afghani refugee, Nelufar Hedayat is acutely aware of how stress feels in her body. For our show, Nelufar tried Progressive Muscle Relaxation: But what the practice’s title doesn’t mention is that you methodically tense your muscles, before releasing them.. At first, it triggered feelings of distress for her. But after recently being diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, Nelufar was able to reframe her relationship to the exercise. By separating the sensation of tensing from stress, she completed the practice feeling empowered and euphoric. Later, we hear from psychologist Loren Toussaint about the importance of intentionally engaging our body’s relaxation response. We also learn how Progressive Muscle Relaxation compares to other well-known relaxation techniques, like deep breathing and visualization.
Listen to next week’s Happiness Break on October 5th for a short guided version of this practice.
Try following these steps for Progressive Muscle Relaxation from Kaiser Permanente: https://tinyurl.com/4k668ehv
Nelufar Hedayat is an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker who has reported on numerous conflict zones. Her new podcast Ritually explores the role of wellness and spiritual practices in contemporary society.
Listen to Ritually: https://tinyurl.com/mtzvf2kp
Follow Nelufar on Twitter: https://tinyurl.com/42ytnytw
Follow Nelufar on Instagram: https://tinyurl.com/y6abuvtp
Follow Nelufar on Facebook: https://tinyurl.com/mr2weemp
Loren Toussaint is a professor of psychology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
Learn more about Loren and his work: https://tinyurl.com/4ea2jx9x
Follow Loren on Twitter: https://tinyurl.com/mry2yb4s
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
Four Ways to Calm Your Mind in Stressful Times: https://tinyurl.com/6apdf52p
How Resting More Can Boost Your Productivity: https://tinyurl.com/23h6rnvw
How a Body Scan Can Help With Strong Emotions: https://tinyurl.com/59tyjbhr
How Tuning In to Your Body Can Make You More Resilient: https://tinyurl.com/y2jhfmpe
Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation Is Good for Your Health: https://tinyurl.com/3f79nsav
More Resources for A Good Night’s Sleep
University of Toledo- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: https://tinyurl.com/2kadu7va
Mayo Clinic - Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress: https://tinyurl.com/2tfrnnew
BBC - Can’t stop your brain racing at 3am? Try these suggestions from a GP: https://tinyurl.com/yvz45x5w
PTSD UK - How Progressive Muscle Relaxation can help people with PTSD: https://tinyurl.com/4b89auzw
Tell us about your experience with the progressive muscle relaxation practice! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Rate us on Spotify and share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/ckd6yb46
Nelufar Hedayat: I’ve lived my life negotiating how big I am, how small I am, how much skin is visible to other people, how much skin I keep to myself, do I want to be seen? How do I want to be seen?
I’m a documentary filmmaker, in front of the camera and very often that camera can bore a hole through me and eviscerate my personhood. Sitting in front of a person that I’m interviewing, whether it’s in a war zone or in my backyard, in my home zone. It’s that sense of, I have to be almost invisible in order for the person to feel that they can come out and say their piece.
So often in my life, I just feel like I’m bleeding into my surroundings, like, I don’t know, like I’m not in sharp focus. I am something to look at and also not there.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Welcome to The Science of Happiness, I’m Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director at The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, stepping in this week for Dacher Keltner.
And this week we’re getting out of our heads and into our bodies. Our bodies carry so much, the happy moments, but also the stressors and the traumatic experiences.
Nelufar Hedayat is a busy journalist from the UK who spent years reporting in war zones. For our show today, she tried a practice that can help people feel more calm. It’s called progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR. To do it, you try to guide your attention to focus on different parts of your body from toe to head, tensing muscles up and then slowly releasing them. Doctors and scientists have been exploring the effectiveness of PMR since the early 20th century and it’s been shown to help us relax, lower our cortisol and heart rate, support us in getting better sleep, and can even help us cope with major stresses, like going through chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
We’ll hear from Nelufar about her experience, and later in the show, psychologist Loren Toussaint helps us understand what progressive muscle relaxation can do for our bodies.
Loren Toussaint: There’s kind of an important distinction between just idle time and truly engaging a relaxation response, you know, a rest and rebuild state.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: He also shares other relaxation practices, and what his research can tell us about which technique is the best one.
My conversation with Nelufar, after this break.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Science director at The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. And I’m filling in this week for Dacher Keltner.
Today we’re joined by documentary filmmaker Nelufar Hedayat.
For our show today, she chose to try progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, where you methodically tense up, and then release all the muscles in your body, part by part. It’s a practice that’s been used for decades to help all sorts of people de-stress, get better sleep, and cope with feelings of anxiety and depression. The science behind its impact is really robust. But Nelufar had an experience with this practice that none of us expected, and today we’re going to get into what that was and how ultimately, PMR did help her.
Nelufar, thanks so much for joining us today on the Science of Happiness.
Nelufar Hedayat: Oh my goodness it’s my absolute pleasure.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: What about this practice appealed to you?
Nelufar Hedayat: Initially when it was suggested to me, I was deeply moved by the idea of doing something that was easy, that I could fit into my life that didn’t take too long and that felt appropriate for who I am. Well, this podcast has actually come at a really important point in my life where from the time I agreed to do this to now, I’ve been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
I was born in Afghanistan. I’m a refugee of the war. It’s where the complex in the post-traumatic stress disorder comes from. I’m a hypervigilant person, you know, I’m very aware of what’s going on around me. It’s very rare for me to feel in my own body and it’s extremely hard for someone like me to feel the edges of myself and this exercise, every time I think, it felt like my awareness was within a millimeter of my own physical body.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: So can you walk me through maybe an example where you were trying to do the progressive muscle relaxation exercise and was it easy, was it difficult? While you were doing it? What was happening in your body and what was happening in your mind?
Nelufar Hedayat: I guess my main thing is I hated it. I’d recorded it and
not gonna lie. Why hide that? I didn’t enjoy it the first time I did it.
I am absolutely shattered, I had a very long day filming, quite upsetting stuff. Okay. I could really do with this working.
We’ll begin by drawing all of our focus to the feet. And on your next inhale, go ahead and curl your toes and engage the feet, making them as tense as you can. Gosh, this is like no other meditation I’ve ever done before.
You’re tensing separate parts of your body from three to seven seconds, as you breathe in and hold your breath. And then as you exhale that very deep feeling of allowing your body, your parts to become limp.
I’m there on the bed in a hotel room. And I’m not expecting it to be difficult. And it is. Like, as soon as I tense, I think my body triggers other responses. As a war correspondent, I know exactly what it is when your body viscerally reacts to stress, right?
That’s how exactly I associate the feelings of tensing my calves and my back and feeling that shoulder coming up to my ear lobes. I associate all of that with incredible stress. So I’m just like, you hate this. So I stop halfway through. I’m like, ah, whatever, maybe you’re not in the right mood. And then I just, I sort of had a break, I should say, and I just didn’t do it for several weeks. Then I got my diagnosis and I reframed it all and I was like, you know, deadline’s coming up. I’m gonna be doing the show with you. I have to give this a go.
I had to mentally prepare for this idea of tensing your body in a way that I don’t associate with stress. It’s that idea of disentangling. And for me, even though it felt wrong in my body, the release, once you untense, cause you’re only tensing for like 10 seconds at the max. The release. I felt, was more a sense of like, yeah, I hate it, but something here is evoking a sensation that I know. So it wasn’t a feeling of just discomfort.
I mean, if your audience wants to do it right now, tense up your hands into a ball for five seconds as hard as you physically can and then let it go and experience that shift in your in your biochemistry, in your, physiology. And it felt quite powerful to do that to myself.
Being in my body, taking up that space, it did have a very kind of powerful feeling.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Wonderful. Another example of how the exercise has these unintended benefits of giving us that agency that feeling that we can effectively and purposely shift the experience in our own bodies in all kinds of directions. And I think ultimately the aspiration is in the calming, in the restorative direction, but it’s really unique amongst other awareness or contemplative or mindfulness practices in that it involves that first step of tensing up.
Nelufar Hedayat: This practice feels very much like you are not starting off at one place and trying to get to another, you are actually going up and down, right? Cause my heart would beat right, I could hear it in my ears. So I would love to know what that increase you know, pressure of heart rate, of mental capacity, what that does when it goes up like that, and then down again repeatedly.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah. Well there are some studies that have explored these very questions that you just asked, and people who try progressive muscle relaxation exercises, well their heart rate goes down. Their cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone goes down, they feel less stressed and anxious. There was one study that was done in Israel that looked at how the progressive muscle relaxation just before bedtime affected sleep and symptoms of depression. And they compared it to listening to relaxing music, and both music and the progressive muscle relaxation had a similar effect on improving sleep. But only the progressive muscle relaxation led to a reduction in symptoms of depression.
Nelufar Hedayat: But you mentioned this idea of calming, this sense of calm. It’s bigger than that. Honestly, it feels more than just a relaxing exercise. It’s not a sense of like, Oh, I am no longer stressed. It’s a sense of, oh, I am no longer stressed, and I feel slightly euphoric.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: It makes me think that there’s some similarity between the progressive muscle relaxation and physical exercise when it comes to benefits, right? Because physical exercise is hard and a lot of times it’s unpleasant and you don’t necessarily want to go do it, but you know that if you do it, When you do it, you’re gonna feel better, right?
Do you ever feel like you, you wanna do it? Do you ever have a moment where you’re like, ah, okay, let me just stop whatever I’m doing and go do a progressive muscle relax relaxation.
Nelufar Hedayat: No. I’ll put it like this perhaps. It’s not something that I would ever go to on a whim. However, I think I’ll make big moments of opportunity, but fewer and further between. I can absolutely attest to its overall benefits and I would love to share this with my mother. You know, she was 30 when she became a refugee to the United Kingdom where we live. And so whatever I’ve experienced pales in comparison to my mother and I just, I don’t know, I have this urge, I suppose, to share this practice with her because of its value and I really hope that when I need this tool, which I now have, right, in my arsenal of things that I might need in my life, that when I need this tool, I really hope that I reach out for it. It was that valuable.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Nelufar, I can’t express how wonderful it’s been to talk with you and how grateful we are at the Science of Happiness Podcast for your time and your energy and your thoughtful engagement with the practice.
Nelufar Hedayat: Oh my God. The pleasure is all mine, thank you for gifting me this tool.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Who would you share this practice with? Send them this episode, we’d really appreciate it. And if you decide to try progressive muscle relaxation for yourself, we’d love to hear how it goes. Email us at email@example.com.
Also keep an eye out for next week’s Happiness Break, it’ll be a 5 minute guided version of the very same practice Nelufar tried for this episode.
Coming up, psychologist Loren Toussaint puts progressive muscle relaxation to the test against two other relaxation techniques, and explains why it’s so worthwhile to put a little effort into learning how to relax.
Loren Toussaint: I think that there’s kind of an important distinction between just idle time or kind of empty time or leisure time and truly engaging a relaxation response.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: More, in just a few moments.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director at The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, filling in this week for Dacher Keltner.
We spoke with Nelufar Hedayat today, a busy journalist who recently learned she has complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
When she tried progressive muscle relaxation to help her unwind she found it actually got her heart racing, before it started to help.
Loren Toussaint: People oftentimes believe that stress relaxation is something that should have an immediate impact and it should be lasting. And oftentimes what we find is that that’s not true. There’s a real clear focus on tensing the muscle and concentrating on what that feels like and then it contrasts it immediately with now relax and and let all of that tension flow out.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Loren Toussaint is a psychology professor at Luther College in Iowa. Our producer Haley Gray spoke with him to learn about a few more relaxation techniques, and how they stack up against each other.
Haley Gray: Progressive muscle relaxation has been studied for decades. Research shows it’s effective in coping with all kinds of problems.
Loren Toussaint: You know, hypertension, older folks dealing with pain, not to mention just folks that are kind of from the general healthy population that want to maybe enjoy a little bit more of a relaxed state.
Haley Gray: But how does that compare to other relaxation techniques? To find out, Loren Toussaint had 60 undergrads try a few different practices in his lab.
Loren Toussaint: So, we looked at progressive muscle relaxation, what a lot of people know as deep breathing and guided imagery.
Haley Gray: Toussaint wanted to take apples-to-apples measurements for how relaxing each of these practices really are.
Loren Toussaint: We were really interested in just two things. One is, what is the sort of psychological experience and we wanted to pair that with the physiological indicators of a relaxed person in their body.
Haley Gray: They had the students fill out a questionnaire, measuring things like how sleepy they felt, were they mentally at ease, did they feel rested, or refreshed?
And then they were hooked up to machines that measured their heart rate, and something called electrodermal activity.
Loren Toussaint: And that’s just a very general indicator. Kind of an overall sense of physiological stress going on in your body.
Haley Gray: He divided them into groups. Some did progressive muscle relaxation, others did deep breathing, a third group practiced guided visualization. And for good measure, he had some of them just hang out and read magazines.
He found that they are equally effective – both mentally and physically.
Loren Toussaint: And so the good news here is that you should feel free to choose whatever thing is most appealing to you and seems most comfortable.
Haley Gray: The students who just read magazines said they felt more relaxed but their heart rates and electrodermal activity didn’t change.
Loren Toussaint: I think that there’s kind of an important distinction between just idle time and truly engaging a relaxation response. The relaxation state is an often overlooked and neglected area of our lives. And when we’re constantly tied up in the stresses that are going on in our head. The hormonal nature of that is not one that really facilitates good physical health and we need to think about ways of not just eliminating stress, but also stimulating the relaxation response.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Thanks, Haley. We’re sharing a version of the progressive muscle relaxation practice that Nelufar tried in next week’s Happiness Break. Here’s a sneak peak.
Jo Qina’au: On an exhale. Release the toes. Allow the feet to be completely relaxed,
noticing all the sensations of relaxation from the heels to the bottom of the feet, all the way to the tips of the toes.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Share this episode with a friend who you think would benefit from Progressive Muscle Relaxation, and let us know what helps you relax, or feel present in your body. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use the hashtag happinesspod.
I’m Emiliana Simon-Thomas, filling in for host Dacher Keltner. He’ll be back next week.
Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our Producer is Haley Gray. Sound Designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our Associate Producer is Maarya Zafar. Our Executive Director is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.
Thanks for joining us, and we wish you a very relaxing rest of your day.