Oncology nurses face abundant physical and emotional stressors, which, over time, can result in maladaptive muscle tension. Some degree of muscular tension is necessary to keep the body toned and mobile. However, unnecessary tension can lead to chronic pain and other health problems.

Recognizing the early signs and symptoms of unhealthy muscle tension is not as easy as it may sound. Sensory-motor amnesia is a theory stating that, over time, the brain may fail to recognize that a muscle has not returned to a healthy state of relaxation. The good news is that evidence-based methods for early recognition and release of muscular tension can help.

What Research Tells Us

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a conscious contraction and relaxation of a muscle or muscle group. In a randomized, controlled trial (N = 208), patients with breast or prostate cancer using PMR showed marked reductions in anxiety, stress, and cortisol levels when compared with similar patients not using PMR (p < 0.001). Authors of a systematic review of relaxation interventions for pain found that 8 of 15 qualifying studies supported PMR as an effective pain reducing strategy.

Autogenetic training (AT) uses visualization and auto-suggestion to direct sensations of warmth and heaviness to a targeted body part. Although results regarding the effectiveness of AT are varied, using AT in combination with PMR may enhance relaxation and well-being.

How to Practice

The following instructions apply PMR and AT to the shoulders, neck, and face. Resources for a full body practice are listed in the sidebar.

  1. Find a comfortable position where you will not be disturbed.
  2. Close your eyes and take three deep, cleansing breaths.
  3. Gently draw your shoulders up toward your ears and your chin in toward your chest. Hold for three to five seconds while noticing the sensation of tension.
  4. Slowly release your shoulders down and lift the chin while thinking, “My shoulders are heavy and warm.”
  5. Repeat tensing and releasing the shoulder and neck muscles two more times, increasing the amount of tension and relaxation that feels safe for your body.
  6. Gently tighten the muscles in your face and jaw, hold three to five seconds, release, and repeat two more times. Send images of warmth and heaviness to the jaw, eyelids, and face.
  7. Complete the practice by taking three deep, cleansing breaths.