A Deep Relaxation Technique to Relieve the Stress Impacts of Chronic Mold Illness

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

Dealing with mold-related illness and all that it brings can be anxiety-provoking, to say the least.  When you add to that the past year of living amidst a pandemic and the impacts it has had on so many levels, stress symptoms have definitely been accelerated.  In an effort to address this part of the “total body load”, it seems timely to look at some methods of relaxation to help stress, which, in turn, can have a beneficial impact on the hormonal, nervous, and immune systems.  I realize that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to healing, but this is a relaxation technique that we all can do, as it costs nothing, takes little time, and can offer great recovery benefits for both the mind and body.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

The idea behind Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR is that a physically relaxed body cannot feel very anxious. Similar to deep breathing exercises and meditation practices, PMR is a natural way to calm the body and cope with the effects of stressful thoughts and feelings.

So, what exactly is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?

Progressive muscle relaxation is a calming practice that involves purposefully tensing or tightening certain muscles and then purposefully relaxing them. As a therapeutic technique, PMR was first developed by an American physician named Edmund Jacobson in the early 1900s. This is why it’s also sometimes called Jacobson’s relaxation technique. Jacobson believed that muscle relaxation reduced anxiety and that physically relaxing the body led to a calmer mind. The goal of this “mind-body technique” is to release muscular tension that is often associated with or brought on by stress. Not only can tension in the body contribute to aches and pains, but it can also create a vicious cycle by worsening feelings of stress and anxiety. Especially when it comes to dealing with mold, we all know how hard it can be to feel sick, tired, and then stressed about managing a possible move and/or remediation of our home, not to mention the possibility of losing many of our possessions. The stressful feelings can, at times, be overwhelming to the point where they create health issues of their own.

What is Progressive Muscle Relaxation Used For?

Most often it’s recommended for people dealing with:

– symptoms tied to chronic stress;

– anxiety symptoms;

insomnia and other sleep issues;

– migraines and tension headaches;

– gastrointestinal issues;

– cardiovascular issues made worse by stress;

– various types of chronic pain, including neck and back pain;

– seizure symptoms thought to be triggered by stress.

Is Progressive Muscle Relaxation the Same as Mindfulness?

The two have some similarities but are overall different.

Mindfulness is a mind-body practice that involves bringing your awareness to the present moment, often by focusing on the breath and physical sensations in the body. It’s considered a form of self-regulating and is intended to happen with an attitude of openness, acceptance, and curiosity.

PMR focuses more on consciously relaxing muscles rather than keeping awareness focused on the breath or another focal point. Studies have shown that both can lead to increased feelings of relaxation.

PMR to Combat Sympathetic Dominance

PMR helps decrease sympathetic dominance or the “Fight or Flight” response. Eliciting a “relaxation response” using PMR counters the body’s “fight or flight” stress response and can help manage some of the symptoms tied to chronic stress and anxiety. Many mold-harmed and chronically-ill patients have a nervous system “stuck” in the sympathetic, high-stress response. The signals that the body is in danger just don’t seem to subside, sometimes even when the patient is safe and out of the moldy environment. Techniques to help dampen that stress response can open the door to healing, so that interventions, detoxification, medications, and supplements can work better. Studies have shown that PMR can reduce symptoms tied to the following:

– generalized anxiety;

– phobias;

– panic attacks;

– lack of concentration;

-loss of sense of control;

-poor self-esteem;

-stress during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

How Does PMR Work?

PMR works by promoting the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS has the opposite effects of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for feelings associated with stress. The PNS is often referred to as the “rest and digest” system because it reduces the body’s stress response, the “fight or flight” response just discussed. This means that activation of the PNS can be used to counteract symptoms tied to a heightened stress response, including symptoms like headaches, digestive issues, high blood pressure, and other cardiac issues, insomnia, seizures, and pain. One way in which activation of the PNS benefits the body is by controlling the release of stress hormones (glucocorticoids such as cortisol and adrenaline) that have effects on many bodily functions, including blood pressure, blood sugar levels, heart rate, and blood flow to skeletal muscles.

Studies on PMR and What This Means for Mold Illness

A number of studies have found positive effects on perceived levels of anxiety, depression, and quality of life in patients with cardiac issues, such as pulmonary arterial hypertension, and even cancer after practicing PMR. Following PMR treatments, individuals typically report decreased levels of stress, tension, and pain. Like meditation and breathing exercises, these improvements in health outcomes after using PMR can also be helpful for mold patients to offset the negative effects of chronic stress, including reducing inflammation and symptoms of stress-related health problems.  Reducing the stress in the body also helps mold patients with decision-making, concentration, and cognition–all faculties desperately needed when choices about health and home are at the forefront.

Because it’s a relaxation technique, PMR has been shown to lead to improvements in mood, stress, pain, and general well-being, and therefore it’s not surprising that it can also make it easier to sleep. Since insomnia is often a symptom for mold illness patients PMR can be useful as studies show that by using it to calm a racing mind and reducing physical pain, this mind-body practice is beneficial for making people feel calmer and sleepier. In fact, one study found that practicing PMR daily over the course of six weeks decreased patients’ fatigue levels and improved their quality of sleep; this difference was observed to be statistically significant.

How Do You Perform PMR?

If you’re new to this practice it can be helpful to listen to a progressive muscle relaxation script, which you can find on YouTube, through online programs, on a podcast, or in recordings available at your local library.

If you prefer to practice PMR without a script, follow these basic steps to get started:

1. Find a place to practice that is quiet and comfortable and where you won’t be distracted. You can practice either laying down or sitting in a comfortable chair.

2. During progressive muscle relaxation, you focus on tensing one group of muscles as you breathe in and then relaxing those muscles as you breathe out. Most experts recommend that you follow a specific order as you move through different muscle groups.

3. Start with the lower extremities, tensing and relaxing muscles, and end with the face, abdomen, and chest.

4. Inhale and tighten/contract one muscle group while you hold for five to 10 seconds. Breath out/exhale and release the tension in that muscle group.

5. In between breaths, try to relax for about 10 seconds before continuing to the next muscle group. Slowly work your way through all muscle groups so your entire body feels softer and calmer.

6. Notice how your muscles and body feel differently while releasing tension. You can also focus on taking deep, slow breaths and may choose to use visualization and imagery to make the practice more effective.

To help you relax different muscle groups, the University of Michigan Medicine suggests using this series of techniques to hit multiple muscle groups throughout the body:

– Hands: Clench them.

– Wrists and forearms: Extend them and bend your hands back at the wrist.

– Biceps and upper arms: Clench your hands into fists, bend your arms at the elbows and flex your biceps.

– Shoulders: Shrug them (raise toward your ears).

– Forehead: Wrinkle it into a deep frown.

– Around the eyes and bridge of the nose: Close your eyes as tightly as you can. (Remove contact lenses before you start the exercise.)

– Cheeks and jaws: Smile as widely as you can.

– Back of the neck: Press the back of your head against the floor or chair.

– Front of the neck: Touch your chin to your chest.

– Chest: Take a deep breath, and hold it for four to 10 seconds.

– Back: Arch your back up and away from the floor or chair.

– Stomach: Suck it into a tight knot. (Check your chest and stomach for tension.)

– Hips and buttocks: Press your buttocks together tightly.

– Thighs and lower legs: Clench them hard and point your toes downward.

How Often Should You do PMR?

Ideally, you should practice every day or most days of the week. It only takes about 10 to 20 minutes per day to see results in most cases. For an even bigger impact, you can choose to combine progressive muscle relaxation with other mind-body and therapeutic approaches, such as diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing technique) and systematic desensitization (a form of behavior therapy in which counterconditioning is used to reduce anxiety associated with a particular stimulus). Like PMR, there’s evidence showing that practicing slow, controlled breathwork can help mitigate symptoms tied to chronic stress and anxiety — such as muscular tension and chronic pain, trouble sleeping, high blood pressure, etc. Counterconditioning, used in systematic desensitization, refers to changing someone’s mood through positive pairings and associations. PMR is used during systematic desensitization treatments because it helps the body remain calm while someone works on removing a fear response associated with a phobia.

Risks and Side Effects

PMR is a “non-pharmacological method” of promoting relaxation and is generally thought to be very safe, considering it’s noninvasive and requires nothing but your own body. However, in some cases, it can trigger anxiety in certain people who have trouble controlling their emotions. If you find that this practice makes you feel uncomfortable or leads to panic, consider trying another approach instead or work with a professional therapist as you get started. Also, be sure not to aggravate physical pain if you’re currently injured and healing. Pay attention to how your body feels after the practice, and consider avoiding certain types of stretches if they worsen symptoms.

Closing Note for Mold Patients

In presenting this, it is important to recognize that no technique works for everyone, and more importantly, your air and your diet must be as clean as possible. Deep breathing in air that is laden with mold spores is counterproductive!  Keep your environment monitored with frequent mold plate testing, particularly as we get into more humid and moist air in the spring and summer months. You may need to be more vigilant about keeping your indoor fungal load low as outdoor molds migrate inside. Go to Micro Balance Health Products for products and instructions on treating mold in your home.

Additional support to reduce the stress hormones can be helpful, such as phosphatidylserine (100-300 mg) and L-theanine(500-1000mg), both available on the Wellevate portal.

Do you use this technique or one like it to relieve stress? Was this article helpful? Comment or write to us below or email us at newsletter@sinusitiswellness.com.