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Reciprocal Inhibition

Tilottama Chatterjee Nov 25, 2018
If you have come across the term reciprocal inhibition and are wondering what it means, this story is meant for you.
Reciprocal inhibition is a term that can be used in the physiological sense as well as the psychological sense. In physiology, specifically linked with muscular movement, it indicates the simultaneous contraction and relaxation of opposing muscles.
In psychology, it is a method used in behavioral therapy to bring about a change in an undesirable response to a stimulus, by learning to apply a suitable, incompatible response. To understand both the uses of this term, here is a detailed explanation.

In Physiology

Muscles usually contract in groups when causing movement. These groups work in synergy - one muscle group, the agonists, contract (to cause movement), and an opposing muscle group, the antagonists, relax (to come back to the initial position). These muscles are accompanied by other muscles (synergists) that provide support to the movement.
For example, flexing your knee makes the hamstring muscles contract, while the quadriceps muscles relax to enable the movement. At the same time, your lower gluteal and calf muscles support the hamstrings.
In certain cases, however, especially in situations of high intensity motion, this procedure can cause a rebound reaction if the opposing muscles contract at the same time. Simultaneous contraction of two muscle groups that are actually supposed to contract and relax, causes a tear in the muscle. This creates what is commonly known as a pulled muscle.


This is used as a technique to reduce the occurrence of muscle cramps, and improve overall flexibility. It is commonly practiced by sports persons, athletes, and persons involved in high-intensity fitness training programs.
This method involves applying stress to an opposing muscle group. A stretch is more effective if you use techniques that involve lengthening a muscle that is in a relaxed position, as opposed to one in a contracted position. By understanding motions where reciprocal occurs by default, you can use these movements to perform stretches that are more effective.
This method of stretching is often done in pairs, with one person applying tension to the muscle group being stretched, in combination of hold-relax and hold-contract stretches.


This is a massage technique used to bring relief to those suffering from cramps or spasms. In this form of massage, pressure is applied to an opposing muscle group to force it to relax. This is a widely used in sports.

In Psychology

In psychology, this term is referred to as a form of behavioral therapy, in which an undesirable response is eliminated or discontinued by the introduction of another response, with which the initial response is incompatible.
For example, when a person experiences a panic attack, this technique can be used to practice a relaxation technique such as deep breathing exercises (since anxiety is incompatible with relaxation). It can also indicate repeated exposure to a stimulus that causes an undesirable response, with the aim of attaining a desirable response.
For instance, a person who is afraid of the dark will repeatedly be exposed to dark spaces in order to fight the phobia. The reasoning behind this concept is relearning - by repeated exposure to a stimulus, you can 'unlearn' an incorrect or inhibiting response, and successfully replace it with a suitable response.
This method was researched and developed by Joseph Wolpe, a South African psychologist and a renowned behavioral therapist. The therapy in question deals with systemic desensitization, wherein a person who experiences anxiety or fear when exposed to a certain stimulus, is repeatedly exposed to that stimulus in small doses, while being taught anxiety cures.
Once the fear on exposure to the stimulus at a particular level is countered by inhibiting the initial, undesirable response, the stimulus dosage is increased. This continues over a period of time, till the person has been 'systematically desensitized'. This therapy is also accepted as a way to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Reciprocal inhibition is an important physiological and psychological tool in treatments ranging from muscle cramps to dealing with phobias. Here's hoping this story has helped you understand some of the basic intricacies of this vast and fascinating topic.
Disclaimer: This pieceis for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.