What Relaxation Strategy Can Help With My Insomnia?

Why is it helpful for my sleep?

Posted Nov 29, 2019

Insomnia is defined as difficulty getting to sleep and/or staying asleep, accompanied by distress or daytime impairment as a result of sleep disruption. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population is suffering from insomnia disorder, which means the above sleep disruption occurs at least three nights a week and has been occurring for at least three months or longer. 

Relaxation therapy for insomnia is considered a standard behavioral treatment approach by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. It is a standard treatment because there is ample evidence from research to support the efficacy of relaxation techniques helping to reduce the occurrence of insomnia. 

One such technique, called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), was developed in the 1920s by American physician Dr. Edmund Jacobson. The intent of PMR is to reduce muscular tension caused by stress and to quiet the mind, as it requires one to focus on the procedure and disrupts the flow of racing thoughts. 

PMR can be completed in a variety of ways. First, find a quiet environment to practice in, and then sit comfortably or lie down. You can start with the muscle groups in the feet and work up the body, or start with the muscle groups in the head and move down the body. The goal is to feel the difference between a tensed state and a relaxed state for different muscle regions. When a muscle group is tensed, hold the tension for 5 to 15 seconds; then, focus on releasing and relaxing the muscle group for 20 to 40 seconds.

The idea is that someone who is physiologically activated has muscular tension they may not even be aware of, as the muscles can be chronically tight. An example is tensing the shoulder muscles by shrugging the shoulders upwards (as if using body language to say, "I don't know") and holding it for 5 to 15 seconds, and then releasing the muscles and focusing on the relaxed state for 20 to 40 seconds. If you have an area of pain or physical trauma, you would want to avoid tensing that muscle group or do so gently. 

PMR is beneficial for improving insomnia because research has shown that compared to those without insomnia, those with insomnia are more physiologically activated during sleep as well as during waking hours. This physiological arousal can include higher muscle tension and an increase in racing thoughts. PMR aims to guide the system toward a more relaxed state by directly addressing the muscle tension.

By focusing on the procedure, there is a distraction for the mind; this runs interference with the mind’s racing thoughts. A relaxed physiological state is important for sleep onset and for quality of sleep.  

One benefit of relaxation therapy is that it includes no serious side effects as one would be concerned with in sleep medication, by comparison. There are many resources available to help you with PMR, such as starting with an audio guide that can walk you through the technique. Through practice, over time, you will become proficient and be able to complete the technique from memory.

As with any activity that you are unfamiliar with, you would want to practice during the daytime to start with, and as you feel more comfortable with completing the PMR, you can use it prior to bedtime to help reduce physiological activation.