Muscle Man, Edmund Jacobson

Edmund Jacobson devoted his life to muscles. This journey started when he was in a fire at the age of 10. He made it through the fire unscathed but he was marked deeply by it anyway. He observed previously calm adults switch into full emergency mode in seconds.  How was this possible, he wondered.  What was panic, anxiety, and courageous decisiveness in the midst of crisis?

As Jacobson moved through his schooling, eventually ending up as a professor, he didn’t find many answers to his questions about stress, tension, and emergency response. Early 20th century science just couldn’t provide this understanding so, he would have to do the research himself. He quickly ended up studying bodily reactions to stimuli and from there, muscles.  He carefully noted adults and children as the moved, sat, relaxed, and in sleep (he discovered rapid eye movement dream sleep decades before researchers who get all the credit for it picked up on it). When that wasn’t good enough, he persuaded Bell Telephone Labs to create very sensitive meters to detect small electrical movements in muscle fibers as low as a millionth of a volt.

All of this work did not lead Jacobson to his goal: the heart of emergency response as he had expected, but in the opposite direction, to the world of total relaxation.

In Pursuit of Scientific Relaxation

Applying what he had learned to himself and to some of his patients, he found he had discovered a method that allowed anyone, without any special hypnotic suggestion, medicine, or other external measures, to deeply relax at will. What a person had to do was learn about the brain-muscle relationship that is literally hard-wired into our bodies and take deliberate actions to shift what is happening within that relationship.

We all know that the brain can command certain muscles in the body to get us out of bed and keep us going until the end of the day. Of course, all manner of activities are done with the help of the muscles under brain control as we move throughout that day. That was well known. What Jacobson saw, was less observed: the muscles could command the brain.  When muscles are active, at some level of tension, messages are being sent to the brain that the muscle indeed is doing something. That something can be an action we are aware of, say brushing our teeth, or the action can be something we are not really aware of: clenching teeth, holding tight neck muscles, locking down forehead muscles, etc. Unconsciously producing and holding muscle tension is a perfect avenue for chronic stress to creep into the body.

What would happen, Jacobson wondered, if a person who experienced long term stress learned to relax their muscles on a regular basis?  A person could do this sort of work at the end of the day to unwind (actually, un-tense).  There would be a double effect: unconscious muscle holding would be stopped and in turn, the mind would be quieted by the lack of muscle communications being sent to the brain from the muscles. Indeed, Jacobson found and proved, released muscles lead to a quieter brain and many people benefit from this work.  Jacobson had developed a scientifically based method (in contrast to hypnosis and other methods being practiced at the time), that could be reliably called upon to help people: reduce the experience of pain, get to sleep, and loosen the grip of stress. Jacobson called his program of scientific relaxation, Progressive Relaxation.

Today’s “progressive relaxation” is not Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation

The snag with Jacobson’s method was not any problem with the scientific validity of the process but the length of time Jacobson would spend with each patient. His full program involved, carefully teaching a patient to more and more fully release tension in muscle groups. Jacobson was serious about this learning and expected patients to spend at least one hour a week with him for up to a year!

Showing up at least once a week for a year is not everyone’s thing. Patients and professionals looked for something shorter and when they didn’t find it, they created it. Out of this press for time has come “progressive relaxation” that is fast but in most cases, not deeply effective in teaching people the differences between tension and full relaxation. Today’s approach still progresses through the major muscle groups but doesn’t spend much time on any of the them. Worse yet, those who are less informed, see “progressive relaxation” sort like using a punching bag to work out frustrations. They tell clients to tense a muscle group or a bunch of muscle groups, tense, hold and then release.  That’s it.  The person instructing the patient assumes the patient has just burned off some tension and is in the glow of relaxation.  I hear Jacobson spinning in his grave now.

Much of Jacobson’s approach is lost to our need to rush. The information is there in his many books but what is missing is taking the time to learn what he spent his life uncovering.  A great loss, indeed. Perhaps the gap is filled some what by the rapidly expanding interest in yoga, but that doesn’t quite catch all that Edmund Jacobson meant us to know. It is our intention to do our best to reintroduce the power and potential of the Muscle Man’s work here, in occasional posts, as this blog goes forward. The Muscle Man may be gone but Edmund Jacobson’s powerful scientific technique remains.

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