Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation Technique

Group size:  any

Purpose:  To teach participants a strategy for relaxation for anxiety.  Jacobson’s relaxation technique is a type of therapy that focuses on tightening and relaxing specific muscle groups in sequence. It’s also known as progressive relaxation therapy. By concentrating on specific areas and tensing and then relaxing them, you can become more aware of your body and physical sensations.

History:  Dr. Edmund Jacobson invented the technique in the 1920s as a way to help his patients deal with anxiety. Dr. Jacobson felt that relaxing the muscles could relax the mind as well. The technique involves tightening one muscle group while keeping the rest of the body relaxed, and then releasing the tension.

Props Needed:  copy of relaxation prompts

Activity Preparation

  1. Prep time needed: none, or you can use yoga mats or towels for people to lay on.

Time needed

  • Directions: 2 min.
  • Activity: 20 min
  • Debrief: 15 min

Activity Directions:

  • Invite participants to lay down on the floor.
  • Ask participants to close their eyes.
  • Read relaxation prompts in a slow and monotone voice.
  • Debrief the experience.

Facilitator Script:  “I’d like everyone to find a place to lay down on the floor.  Be sure to give yourself enough space between you and the person next to you.  This activity is called Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation Exercise.  The purpose of this is to teach you an exercise you can do on your own back home if you are feeling anxious or having a hard time falling asleep.  By focusing on tensing and relaxing different muscle groups at a time, it can help you relax.  I’m going to ask everyone to close their eyes for the duration of the activity.  I’m going to walk you through a series of relaxation prompts that will take about 20 minutes.  I encourage you to go with the process and let your mind freely wander.  Are there any questions before we begin?  (Pause for questions.)  Go ahead and close your eyes now.”

Debrief:  Encourage everyone to stand up, stretch, then take a seat in a circle for the debrief.

  • How is everyone feeling?
  • What were some of the thoughts you had as you were going through the exercise?
  • Were you able to relax?
  • How could this process help you back at home?
  • Final thoughts:  Progressive relaxation therapy is generally safe and doesn’t require a professional’s guidance.  Sessions typically last no more than 20-30 minutes, making it manageable for people with busy schedules.  You can practice the techniques at home by recording the instructions from the handout, or purchase an audio recording that takes you through the exercises.


Recovery/Wellness Metaphor:

Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation Technique prompts 

Read these prompts in a slow, monotone voice. 

Take a deep breath, hold it for 3 seconds, then let it out. 

Do this again.  Take a deep breath, hold it for 3 seconds, then let it out. 

Imagine yourself in a relaxed place.

Allow yourself to feel really comfortable.

We’re going to start with your right hand.  Clench your right hand into a fist…  tighter…  tighter…  study the tension in your first, hand, and forearm.  Be sure the rest of your body is relaxed. 

Now relax your right fist…  loosen fingers…  observe the contrast in feeling between your right fist tense and relaxed, and the difference in the way your right and left hands feel now.

Relax all over.  Attend to your body’s feelings.  Try to enjoy the sensation of your body as you relax.

Now tighten your left fish and repeat the same procedure as for you right fist.  Clench your left fist…  tighter…  tighter…  study the tension in your first, hand, and forearm.  Be sure the rest of your body is relaxed. 

Now relax…  loosen fingers…  observe the contrast in feeling between your right fist tense and relaxed, and the difference in the way your left and right hands feel now.

Now repeat the procedure for both fists.   Tighter…  Tighter…  Be sure the rest of your body is relaxed.  And relax.  Loosen your fingers.

Bend your elbows…  tense both biceps and try to keep hands and fingers loose…  relax and let your arms rest at your sides.  Notice the different in feeling between the tension and the relaxation.

Straighten your arms so that you tense your tricep muscles in the back of your upper arms….  Now relax your arms at your sides.  Relax all over.

Notice that your arms feel comfortable and heavy.  Feel the relaxation spread up your arms.  Notice that your arms feel heavier and heavier as you relax more and more.  See if you can go one step further in relaxing. 

Take a deep breath in and out.

Now we’ll work on relaxing the face, shoulders, neck and upper back.

Begin by wrinkling your eyebrows up toward your scalp.  Be sure the rest of your body is relaxed.  Now smooth your brow.  Relax.

Now frown hard…  and relax.

Tighten your eyes.  Tighten the muscles deep in your eyes as well as the facial muscles around your eyes.  Relax…  keep eyes closed.

Now bit your teeth together.  Study the tension in you jaws.  Relax…  slightly part your lips. 

Relax lips…  eyes…  forehead…  scalp.  Feel the difference.

Press y our tongue hard against the roof of your mouth.  Study the tension.  Relax…  slightly part lips.

Feel the relaxation in your cheeks…  scalp…  eyes… face… arms…  hands.

Relax further.

Now press your head back against the floor and feel the tension in your neck…  Relax.

Now bring your head forward toward your chest.  Feel the tension in your neck.  Relax.

Shrug your shoulders to your ears.  Be sure the rest of your body is relaxed.  Notice the difference between how your shoulders feel in contrast to the rest of your body.  Relax.

Let relaxation flow into your back…  neck… throat…  jaws… and face.  Let relaxation spread and go deeper.  Now relax your entire body.  You experience a comfortable heavy feeling.  You experience a good feeling…  the force of gravity.

Now for the check, stomach and lower back.  Breathe deeply – hold.  Notice the tension.  Now exhale and study the feeling.  Breathe slowly, normally in and out.  Notice how you feel more relaxed exhaling.  Let your chest walls grow loose as you breathe out.

Now take in another deep breath.  Hold.  Breathe out.  Feel the release of tension.  Let relaxation spread to your shoulders, neck, back, and arms.  Let go to the relaxation.

Now tighten your stomach.  Make it hard.  Now relax.  Notice the well-being that accompanies your relaxation.

Now, gently tighten the muscles of your abdomen, but don’t strain.  Relax.

Do this again.  Notice the tension for a few moments.  Then release…  notice the relaxation.

Become aware of the difference between the tensed muscles and the relaxed muscles.

Be aware again of your breathing.  Notice how exhaling relaxes your lungs and stomach.  Try to let go of all the contractions in the body.

Now for your lower back.  Arch up.  Feel the tension along your spine.  Relax the rest of your body. Locate the tension in your lower back.  Relax your lower back, upper back, stomach, chest, shoulders, arms, face…  Relax further, even further. 

Now tighten your buttocks and thighs by pressing down on your heels.  Relax the rest of your body.  Relax.  Feel the contrast.

Press your feet and toes downward to tighten calves and feet.  Relax.

Now curl your toes toward you to create tension along your shins.  Relax.  Relax further.  Now, as I mention parts of the body, let go more and more of those parts. 

Feet relax…  ankles relax… calves and shins…  knees and thighs…  buttocks and hips…  Feel the heaviness of your lower body.   Stomach…  Waist…  Lower back…  Let go more and more.  Upper back…  chest…  shoulders…  arms…  all the way down to your fingertips…  Let relaxation take over…  Throat… neck…  jaws and face…  all relaxed.

To deepen the effects of the relaxation, think about lifting one leg.  Think of the muscles you’d need to use.  Can you spot any tension that has crept back into that part of your body as you think of lifting it?  Relax it…  Can you notice tension disappearing?  Now think about moving the other leg.  Relax…  Lie and relax this way, choosing other body parts and relaxing the tension. 

When you are ready, count backward from four to one, stretch and sit up.