Trauma Focused Muscle Relaxation

By Melvin Hayden 


When the holiday season creates an environment where family is the cause of trauma, it is normal to have strong emotional or physical reactions following a distressing event. On most occasions though, these reactions subside as part of the body’s natural healing and recovery process. Family members who experience a shared distressing event often become closer and appreciate each other more.

A traumatic experience is any event in life that causes a threat to our safety and potentially places our own life or the lives of others at risk. As a result, a person experiences high levels of emotional, psychological and physical distress that temporarily disrupts their ability to function normally in day-to-day life. What I have listed below is a muscle-relaxation technique you can emphasize over the holidays when things get a bit stressful.

In our daily activities, we tend to use more muscles than necessary to accomplish a task, and in time, this excess tension becomes a habit. In driving a car, for example, we tighten many muscles in our back, shoulders, neck and face which are unnecessary for the act of driving. In differential relaxation, we’ll demonstrate how to use only the muscles you need, while relaxing the one’s you don’t need.  

Asian woman practicing yoga at home, nec
Portrait of attractive woman meditating
  • Begin this exercise by making a fist with each hand.

  • Breathe in deeply and tense all the muscles in both arms.

  • Hold that tension.

  • Now notice how the tension spreads to your shoulders, your belly, your jaw and forehead.

  • Breathe out through your mouth, open each fist slowly and release all the tension in your upper body.

  • Breathe in again deeply through your nose and breathe out slowly through your mouth. Pause a moment.

  • Now let’s try this exercise again, but this time make a fist with just your right hand.

  • Tighten all the muscles in your right arm, from your fingers to your upper arm.

  • Notice how the tension wants to spread to other areas of the body.

  • As best you can, focus on relaxing this tension in your shoulder, your forehead and your jaw while maintaining tension in your right arm.

  • Relax your stomach muscles.

  • Notice any tension in your legs and relax it.

  • Now breath out, open your fist and let all your muscles relax.

  • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. (Pause and allow for relaxation breathing).

  • Now we will attempt to tighten all the muscles on the right side of the body while relaxing the left.

  • While breathing in, tense all the muscles on the right side of your body: your right foot, right leg, right arm and your right shoulder and even attempt to tighten the muscles in the right side of your face, lifting one cheek and closing your right eye.

  • Now while holding the tension on your right side, try relaxing the left side of your body: your left shoulder, your left arm, your left leg and your left foot.

  • Even try relaxing the left side of your face.

  • Breathe in again deeply and then exhale through your nose, letting both sides of your body just relax.

As you can see, differential relaxation isn’t easy, but with practice it becomes easier and these fundamentals can apply to any situation. As you go through your day, think about the muscles that are needed for your activities. Also, notice the activities that bring tension to unnecessary parts of your body and consciously relax them. Remember to try not to let tension become a habit. 



Relaxation Exercises retrieved May 22, 2020 from