Sometimes survivors of child sexual abuse experience a difficult relationship with their physical self. For example, they might struggle to feel connected with their body because it can be a reminder of the trauma they experienced. Their body may still carry the lingering effects of trauma, which might manifest as physical symptoms such as chronic pain, nausea, panic attacks, or muscle tension. Or a survivor may cope with their trauma by resorting to a detached numbness in order to protect themselves from further pain. Such numbness can make it more difficult to be in tune with the physical sensations and needs their body is experiencing. For these reasons and more, it is common for survivors to struggle with seeing the positive aspects of their body.

This is where body kindness can help. Body kindness is about redirecting feelings of shame or judgment about your body towards acceptance and self-compassion. One way you can begin this shift is by noticing all the ways your body serves you. Even though it may be difficult, taking the time to appreciate all the parts of your body, even the parts you may not usually have positive thoughts about, can help strengthen your body kindness.

This type of appreciation can be small—as small as, “Today my skin helped me feel the warm sunlight,” or “My neck helped me to look up at the sky this morning.”

In this activity, you can practice observing how your body serves you with a relaxation technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR).

What Is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a relaxation exercise that centers around tensing and releasing your major muscle groups in order to learn how to notice, appreciate, and relax those muscles.1 Not only can this exercise help relieve tension and improve your ability to relax, it can also help draw your attention to parts of the body that may generally go unnoticed. Studies have also shown PMR to be useful in helping to treat stress-related symptoms such as tension headaches, anxiety, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, and more.2,3,4

How Do I Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

You can get the most out of PMR by practicing it 15­–20 minutes a day, but if all you have is three minutes at your desk or while sitting in your parked car, you can still take time to contract, relax, and appreciate your body.

So let’s get started!

01
Settle into a comfortable position, sitting or lying down.
02
Flex a muscle or muscle group for 5–7 seconds to help you become aware of that part of your body.
03
As you release and relax your muscle (about 20–30 seconds), imagine a feeling of appreciation flowing towards that specific body part.
04
Repeat as needed for each muscle group (up to five times).
05
After you have finished tensing and relaxing, take a moment to notice what your body feels like. Think back to each part you tensed and relaxed and note how each one has helped you today. (For example, my calves helped me get up the stairs this morning.)
  • Note: Be careful when tensing the muscles in your neck, near your spine, or in any areas where you have been previously injured. Speak to a doctor if you have any concerns before you begin.

For more guidance, you can follow this sample script:

Point toes of your right foot toward your face and then away. Tense the thigh and calf muscles of your right leg.

Hold . . . relax.

Point toes of your left foot toward your face and then away. Tense the thigh and calf muscles of your left leg.

Hold . . . relax.

Tense both legs.

Hold . . . relax.

Tighten the muscles in your hips and backside.

Hold . . . relax.

Tighten your chest, stomach, and back muscles.

Hold . . . relax.

Squeeze your right hand into a fist.

Hold . . . relax.

Squeeze your left hand into a fist.

Hold . . . relax.

Squeeze both hands into a fist.

Hold . . . relax.

Squeeze your right hand into a fist, tense your right arm, and bring your forearm toward your body.

Hold . . . relax.

Squeeze your left hand into a fist, tense your left arm, and bring your forearm toward your body.

Hold . . . relax.

Squeeze both hands into fists, tense both arms, and bring your forearms toward your body.

Hold . . . relax.

Raise both shoulders.

Hold . . . relax.

Clench your jaw and push your tongue to the roof of your mouth.

Hold . . . relax.

Squeeze your eyes shut and scrunch up your facial muscles.

Hold . . . relax.

Raise your eyebrows.

Hold . . . relax.

Tense your entire body.

Hold . . . relax.

Feel or imagine a sense of appreciation for your entire body as you consider how its many parts have helped you today.

 

Combine PMR with Another Strategy

Combining PMR with other types of stress-management strategies can help stretch the benefits of this exercise. To push these benefits further, try pairing PMR with activities that match your main concern. For example, if your main concern is muscle-based (like tension headaches or stiff posture), you might consider pairing PMR with yoga or stretching exercises. If the concern has more to do with autonomic or nervous system functioning (like hypertension or migraine headaches), consider pairing PMR with nervous system-related activities like breathing exercises. And finally, if your concerns are primarily about your emotional experience, consider pairing PMR with meditation, guided imagery, or therapy. Again, be sure to consult with your medical provider for medical advice or concerns.

Create Your Own PMR Script

After becoming familiar with this exercise, you may want to personalize it to focus on areas of your body you feel are most important to you in this moment. Perhaps you want to focus on more general areas of your body (e.g., legs and feet). Or maybe you want to focus on more specific areas (e.g., right thigh muscle). For more ideas, below are three different muscle groupings that can help you get more broad or specific with the muscles you tense.1

Broad

  1. Arms and hands
  2. Face, neck, and shoulders
  3. Chest, back, and belly
  4. Legs and feet

Mid

  1. Right hand and arm
  2. Left hand and arm
  3. Face
  4. Shoulders and neck
  5. Chest, back, and belly
  6. Right leg
  7. Left leg

Specific

  1. Dominant hand and forearm
  2. Dominant biceps
  3. Nondominant hand and forearm
  4. Nondominant biceps
  5. Forehead
  6. Upper cheeks and nose
  7. Lower cheeks and jaws
  8. Neck and throat
  9. Chest, shoulders, and upper back
  10. Abdominal or stomach region
  11. Hips and lower back
  12. Dominant thigh
  13. Dominant calf
  14. Dominant foot
  15. Nondominant thigh
  16. Nondominant calf
  17. Nondominant foot

You Know Your Body Best

The ultimate goal of PMR is to connect you with you. If PMR doesn’t feel good for you, it’s okay to listen to your body and try something else. If you feel you don’t really know your body, PMR can help you develop a stronger relationship, connection, and appreciation for all your body does to serve you. It can also help you practice:

  • Acknowledgement by noting how each of these muscle areas serve you throughout the day.
  • Mindfulness by drawing your attention to the present moment and the sensations the various areas of your body are experiencing.
  • Aspiration by having an intention in mind as you go through each exercise, such as building focus, reconnecting with your body, or simply relaxing.
  • Disclaimer: Not all exercises are suitable for everyone. If you are concerned about whether the exercises in this movement activity are right for you, do not do them unless you have cleared it with your physician. These exercises can result in injury. If at any point during your exercise you begin to feel faint, dizzy, or have physical discomfort, you should stop immediately. You are responsible for exercising within your limits and seeking medical advice and attention as appropriate. The Younique Foundation is not responsible for any injuries that result from participating in this activity.

References:

  1. Bernstein, D. A., & Borkovec, T. D. (1973). Progressive Relaxation Training: A Manual for the Helping Professions. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

  2. McCallie, M. S., Blum, C. M., & Hood, C. J. (2006). Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. 13(3), 51–66.

  3. Manzoni, G. M., Pagnini, F., Castelnuovo, G., & Molinari, E. (2008). Relaxation training for anxiety: a ten-year systematic review with meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 8(1).

  4. Carlson, C. R., & Hoyle, R. H. (1993). Efficacy of abbreviated progressive muscle relaxation training: A quantitative review of behavior medicine research. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(6), 1059–1067.