Insomnia is defined as difficulty getting to sleep and/or staying asleep and there is distress or daytime impairment as a result of the sleep disruption. Approximately 10-15% of the US population is suffering with insomnia disorder which means the above sleep disruption occurs at least 3 nights a week and has been occurring for at least 3 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 occurrence of insomnia.
One such technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) was developed in the 1920s by an 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 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 in a tensed state and relaxed state for different muscle regions. When a muscle group is tensed, hold the tension for 5-15 seconds and then focus on releasing and relaxing the muscle group for 20-40 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 5-15 seconds and then releasing the muscles and focusing on the relaxed state for 20-40 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 help the system towards a more relaxed state by directly addressing the muscle tension. By focusing on the procedure there is a distraction for the mind and 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 to relaxation therapy include no serious side effects as one would be concerned with in comparison to sleep medication. There are many resources available to help you with PMR such as starting with an audio version to 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.