How to Relax-- from the Outside In

Chicago has been a bit jumpy lately, what with nasty partisan elections and the upcoming Polar Vortex Two threatening a Chiberia II and a Bears Football Team that can’t play straight (or at all) — but there is a way to get through it all, and it was largely developed in Chicago about ninety years ago, by Edmund Jacobson.

Edmund Jacobson was born in Chicago, April 22, 1888 and lived a good long life, mostly here, and died here on January 07, 1983.  He is credited with inventing Progressive Muscle Relaxation and the first biofeedback machine.

In 1929, Jacobson wrote a book entitled, Progressive Relaxation.  It was written for the  medical profession,   with the idea that many of what we now call psychosomatic problems could be brought under control and even prevented by learning how to relax.  By “relax”, Jacobson did not mean a round of golf or boweling or even Lollapalooza.  He meant relaxing from the outside in of your body by tensing muscles for a period of time and then relaxing them.  He even included eyeballs in his instruction.

Well and good, you say. So did he, but being an actual scientist, affiliated with Harvard University and later with the Laboratory for Clinical Physiology, he wanted proof, which led him, along with Bell Labs, to invent a machine that could measure how tense we all were by electric pulse generated by muscles, called now a biofeedback machine.

In 1934, Jacobson pubished a book aimed at the public, entitled, You Must Relax.  In it he details how so  many visits to the doctor then — as now– are related to what he called “nervousness” and what we now simply call stress.  He believed that learning to relax tense muscles, which, if tensed long enough  and hard enough, can lead to many psychological and physical problems,  would be a benifical thing to learn.  He had proof of his hypothisis though application of his biofeedback machine and clinical observation.  Once people relaxed — on Jacobson terms– many of their physical ills went away, too.

Jacobson believed in hands-on approach, and he or other doctors spend vast amounts of time with their patients so they could learn to “relax”.  Today, no doctor is going to do that with you, or if they will, you will pay a fortune; not to mention that relaxed doctors seemed to have disappeared with the “house call” and black bag.  Out of Jacobson’s findings — after a lull in medical thinking that believed the mind had nothing to do with bodily ills– came many offshoots made popular in the US, from a “Cliff Notes” version of his book about relaxation responses to the Beatles chanting their mantras of peace of soul between destroying the band.

However, Jacobson’s findings remain rooted in science, and though he invented the biofeedback machine, he did not advocate its use.  He believed that people had to gain the control over their muscles innately; only then would they be able to alter their health destiny.   In fact, according to Jacobson, no mantras or hypnosis or mental imagry was necessary to make use of his Progressive Relaxation, as the muscles did  the work, if you understood and followed his instructions.

Jacobson had the satisfaction of living long enough to see his ideas become mainstream, sort of.  Sadly, there is no mention in the Chicago Tribune archives of Jacobson.  Many techniques for “relaxing” are not built on science, unlike this rare and  forgotton Chicagoan, who only wanted you to chill and relax.


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