Carolyn Colwell
May 25, 1981 12:00 PM

On campuses, spring is a time of tests—and tension. But do exams really have to be such a sweat? There is at least one professor who thinks not. “Fear is’ necessary,” says University of Louisville psychologist Joseph McGuigan. “The question is, how much is reasonable?”

McGuigan, 56, director of Louisville’s Performance Research Laboratory, specializes in the care and beating of tension and related aches, whether they occur among housewives, job seekers or corporate executives. McGuigan boasts that he once had root canal work without novocaine and found it “duck soup.” His secret is a simple routine called “progressive relaxation.” One can’t try to be calm, he says: “An effort to relax is a failure to relax.” Instead, people must learn just “to let tension go.”

McGuigan’s method involves no drugs, yoga or chanting of mantras. It merely requires people to lie down once a day for an hour of “practices” designed to untie the knots from the body’s 1,030 skeletal muscles. Practitioners start with the wrists, which they flex and relax three times. They then move on to muscles in the arms, shoulders, trunk, hips and legs, winding up with the eyes, mouth and even the tongue. McGuigan theorizes that tension is the result of often subtle muscle contraction, so his practices extend the muscles and insure a kind of preventive relaxation.

For people with no special problems, McGuigan says the procedure offers a way “to break up the day and call a halt to this madness we’re all engaged in.” For folks who have tension-related ailments, McGuigan’s cure always begins with the practices, even though patients may find them puzzling. Notes McGuigan: “I’ve never treated someone who hasn’t said, ‘Why do you start with my arm when my problem is headaches?’ ”

But when working on specific neuroses, McGuigan focuses on specific muscles. For instance, someone with a fear of flying may develop tension in the eye muscles when looking out an airplane window. McGuigan claims that such a sufferer can overcome his phobia before going aloft by closing his eyes, imagining the view, locating the eye tensions, and then relaxing them. Among other successes, McGuigan has helped an opera singer relax overtaut throat muscles and freed a lawyer from courtroom stage fright.

McGuigan learned progressive relaxation from Edmund Jacobson, 93, a University of Chicago psychologist who has studied the relationship between muscle tension and phobias. While some critics find the therapy to be too simple to be as effective as McGuigan claims, he says that its value has been proven by electromyograms that record the tension in any given muscle on a cathode-ray tube. No other relaxation techniques, including the much-touted Transcendental Meditation, can show similar results, McGuigan claims.

The son of a photographer, McGuigan grew up in Los Angeles and got his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Southern California. Teaching heightened his interest in tension. “After dumb faculty meetings, my stomach would hurt,” he says. “I was one of those people who look placid, but aren’t. You put them on an electromyogram and find they’re torn up inside.”

McGuigan, a bachelor, works in a laid-back office: Amid the clutter are cans of dog food for Tyrone, the mutt he often brings to work. Next September, Prentice-Hall will publish Calm Down ($12.95), a how-to book McGuigan has written on progressive relaxation, and he and Dr. Jacobson are developing a series of taped lessons on the subject.

McGuigan does not want people to hang too loose, however. At times it is useful to get tense. For instance, he says, “I never advise anyone to relax when there’s an oncoming truck. The aim is to learn how to tense wisely.”

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