It sounds counterintuitive but it works. Tensing muscles in your body all over and then in sequence generates an intense feeling of relaxation. But, how can this be? We have Edmund Jacobson to thank for it.
Edmund's dad was a realtor from Strasbourg and his mother was born in Iowa. He was born in 1888 and he grew up in Chicago. He had an interesting career. He went to Northwestern University and and then Harvard. He became a physiologist (someone who studies how the body works) and then studied medicine at Rush Medical School.
Given this background he had a very good understanding of how the body works. He had a breakthrough intuition that goes against most people's common sense. Here it is: the body and the mind are intimately connected. In fact, the brain is a body part and the mind is what the brain does. It is amazing how to this day a lot of people still don't get this. He was talking about this in 1921 when he became the first to apply what we know about psychology to the body and created the concept of psychosomatic medicine. 'Psychosomatic' has since been used to tell people what the problem is all in their minds. Edmund would have been very cross as that idea just adds to the basic mistake that people seem to be so prone to making, that the body and the mind are two very separate things. The term psychosomatic means 'both in the mind (psycho from psyche: mind in Greek) and in the body (somatic from soma: body in Greek)'.
So, Edmund, a physiologist who then became a doctor (you can't get any more 'body-based' than that) understood that the mind and the body affect each other deeply. He measured muscle tone for the first time and he was then able to show how excessive muscle tension is linked to various mind (psychological) and body (physiological) problems. He showed that if you reduce tension you reduce brain activity and that achieving this relaxed state was a good way to prevent psychosomatic (mind-body) problems. After 20 years of research into this connection came up with a way to do this which remains one of the most powerful ways to relax: progressive deep muscle relaxation. It involves voluntarily tensing muscles to the point that they cannot be any tenser. It then becomes much easier to let go of the tension. You then have to study the difference between the tense and the relaxed state. You go systematically from one muscle group to another until you train them all. With practice you can learn to get your body into the relaxed situation much more effectively. Be Stress Free includes a guided progressive deep muscle relaxation exercise if you want to try it yourself.
How powerful is it? As powerful as one of the strongest tablets we use for sedation: valium. Paloma Pifarre, a nuclear medicine doctor from Barcelona and her group, selected a group of people going through a very stressful situation: having a scan to check for cancer. Paloma and her colleagues split eighty four people in two groups. One group had valium and the other group had Edmund Jacobson's progressive deep muscle relaxation. They then measured anxiety directly in people's brain! Basically since they were scanning them anyway they looked at their brains in action and could see if the brain activity that happens in anxiety was there or not. She saw that there was absolutely no difference between the two groups in terms of anxiety during the scanning.
So there you have it, some times to relax you have to lean into the tension to learn how to switch it off. Get clenching!