Last Updated on April 29, 2024

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Joy of Doing: Redesigning Work to Work for Everyone.

Doing things in a relaxed way

Edmund Jacobson was an American doctor in the early 20th Century.

And he was the man who practically invented “relaxation.”

Too Tense

Jacobson noticed that many of his patients had mysterious ailments.

They complained of symptoms such as insomnia, headache, fatigue, and indigestion.

Often they had high blood pressure, appeared nervous, or had angry outbursts.

But besides these symptoms, they seemed perfectly healthy.

Using a microvoltage machine, Jacobson measured the muscle tonus of these patients.

He discovered that they had more tension in their muscles, even just sitting there.

They were literally “tense.”

As a result, he called these conditions “tension disorders.”

In his poorly titled book for the public You Must Relax, Jacobson wrote,

“In non-medical terms the cause of tension disorder is excessive effort.”

Teaching Relaxation

To treat these tension disorders, Dr. Jacobson spent an hour each week with a patient, teaching them to deliberately relax their muscles.

Before Jacobson, doctors often prescribed “rest.”

But he noticed that rest was different than muscular relaxation.

For rest people often did stimulating activities that increased tension in the muscles and nervous system.

So relaxation was quite different than rest.

To teach his patients to relax, Jacobson first had them sit in a chair.

He instructed his patient to bend their right hand upwards at the wrist, noticing the feeling of tensing the forearm extensor muscles.

Then he had them relax this muscle, causing their hand to drop.

Feeling into the top of the forearm, he guided them to continue to relax more and more, feeling that muscle becoming more and more loose and limp.

He then repeated this exercise with the left hand.

And so on, for all the muscles.

Relaxing Progressively

Over many months, Dr. Jacobson slowly guided them through progressively relaxing every muscle in their body.

Hence the name of his technique, “Progressive Relaxation.”

He also gave his patients a homework assignment:

Every day, lie down for an hour in the morning and an hour at night.

For that hour, practice deeply relaxing all your muscles, one by one.

As Jacobson’s patients learned to relax their muscular system, they also relaxed their nervous system.

Then their mysterious symptoms often went away.

This was because their affliction was not caused by a bacteria, virus, or injury.

Their suffering was created by a chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight-or-flight response.”

Since muscles are controlled by the neuro-muscular system, relaxing the muscles relaxed the nerves.

And relaxed nerves lead to a relaxed body and mind.

Bringing Relaxation into Action

After mastering relaxation lying down, Jacobson advised his patients to practice relaxing while sitting upright.

Once they got the hang of that, he suggested trying to do simple tasks, such as reading the newspaper, while remaining totally relaxed.

The idea was to gradually extend this deep relaxation into more and more challenging activities, until they could ultimately bring it into work.

A stressful job was typically why a patient ended up in Dr. Jacobson’s office in the first place.

So he was helping people retrain their nervous systems to no longer get stressed while working.

He was linking up a profound state of relaxation with doing things that used to activate the nervous system.

Not Just for Hypnosis

Many hypnotists today use Progressive Muscle Relaxation as a way to induce a relaxed trance state.

So it’s still a valuable technique.

That said, we’ve mostly forgotten Jacobson’s original intention for his method.

The idea was to bring relaxation into activity.

Most people who do Progressive Muscle Relaxation spend five or ten minutes relaxing their muscles as a break.

This brings some minor relief.

But few people take the time to truly master relaxation, let alone learn to do difficult things in a relaxed way.

That’s a very different intention for the practice.

And it’s a way of doing things that could change your whole life.

Jacobson himself lived to 94 years old.

So maybe there’s something to this relaxation thing.

Have a relaxed week,


p.s. If you haven’t tried my Extreme Relaxation hypnosis audio, a lot of people like it (51,000+ views on YouTube!). Get all the versions here for as little as $2.