A Note on Relaxation and Verbal Instruction

George W. Doherty, M.S.

Emotional problems such as anxiety, neuroses, behavioral problems, drug abuse, alcoholism, psychotic behavior or other forms of disturbed behavior have in common increased muscle tension which apparently results directly from the emotions of anxiety and kindred emotional states of apprehension, insecurity, frustration or inadequacy. These are all emotions which evoke defensive behavior, particularly the activation of muscles in preparation to defend against threats to one's well- being. Prolonged stress and emotional pressure maintain the muscle tension and, over time, the muscles adapt to higher and higher levels of tension.

One commonly used method of treating emotional stress and anxiety has been relaxation combined with various forms of systematic desensitization. Laboratory studies have departed from typical clinical practice in the method of inducing relaxation. In the clinical practice of systematic desensitization, the patient or client may request the repeated relaxation of a specific muscle group before proceeding to the next. In contrast to this, the instructions for relaxation used in analogue studies do not provide the subject with this alternative (Linder and McGlynn, 1971).

Other techniques used in the treatment of stress, emotional disorders and a wide range of behavioral and emotional problems are biofeedback and hypnosis. These techniques used together or individually have had varying degrees of success with a wide variety of problems.

The potentiation of cognitive control of behavior has inspired recent investigators in behavior therapy to launch investigations into a variety of unrelated conditions (Wickramasekera, 1976). There is a growing recognition that cognitive verbal instructions and cognitive factors can significantly add to the power of reinforcement variables.

Conditioned emotionality theories used to explain the origins of anxiety (e.g. Mowrer, 1960) act as important bases for the practice of behavior therapy (Bandura, 1969). Generally, these theories postulate that through some type of learning experience, environmental events can become endowed with the capacity to cause anxiety responses when they are encountered and/or imaginally anticipated. Bandura (1969) suggests that the effectiveness of reinforcement procedures may be enhanced by verbal instructions. A combination of verbal instructions and response-contingent feedback may be more effective in deepening muscle relaxation than verbal instructions alone.

Electromyographic (EMG) feedback seems useful in the induction of muscle relaxation (Budzynski and Stoyva, 1969; Green, Walter, Green and Murphy, 1969). EMG feedback induced muscle relaxation also appears to increase suggestibility (Wickramasekera, 1976), and, in at least one study (Wickramasekera, 1976) has been found to increase hypnotic susceptibility of young college males.

Barber (1969) found that relaxation instructions contribute to suggestibility. It is probable that delivering the instructions more effectively will enhance suggestibility. Wickramasekera (1976) hypothesizes that relaxation increases suggestibility or response to verbal instructions through the mechanism of improved attention to verbal stimuli.


Bandura, A. Principles of behavior modification. New York: Holt, 1969.

Barber, T.X. A scientific approach to hypnosis. New York, Van Nostrand, 1969

Green, E.; Walter, E.D.; Green, A.; and Murphy, G. Feedback technique for deep relaxation. Psychophysiology, 1969, 6, 371.

Linder, Lowell H. and McGlynn, F. Dudley Experimental desensitization of mouse- avoidance following two schedules of semiautomated relaxation training. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 1971 (May), Vol 9(2), 131-136.

Mowrer, O.H. Learning theory and the symbolic processes. New York: Wiley, 1960.

Wickramasekera, I. The application of verbal instructions and EMG feedback training to the management of tension headache: Preliminary observations. Headache, 1973, 13, 74-76.

Wickramasekera, I. Effects of electromyographic feedback on hypnotic susceptibility: More preliminary data. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1973, 82, 74-77.

Wickramasekera, I. Biofeedback, behavior therapy and hypnosis: Potentiating the verbal control of behavior for clinicians. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, Inc., 1976.


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