There is often confusion about what mindfulness and relaxation stand for. Often, they are treated like the same phenomenon, and although we can point to some differences, they seem to exert equal effects on stress reduction and increase in general well-being. But is this actually the case? Or are they different in terms of their capacity to affect our well-being? And if so, which one should we practice and for what kind of effect?
It is not difficult to see why mindfulness and relaxation are often considered in the same way. When we practice mindfulness, we precipitate the relaxation response, which is a phenomenon that is sought during a relaxation practice. And in the same way, when we practice relaxation, we often focus or concentrate on the present moment and on our present bodily sensations (for example when we relax our tensed muscles), which is something that is done during mindfulness.
Generally speaking, mindfulness implies the process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. Mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of rumination and worry or anxiety. Research has provided evidence for meditation-induced improvements in psychological and physiological well-being, including benefits in higher-order cognitive functions, altering brain activity (Luders, Toga, Lepore, & Gaser, 2009). The goal in mindfulness is to be oriented to on-going events and experiences in a receptive, attentive manner, without judging, this has implications for the way we perceive and respond to stressful situations. Mindfulness would promote more objectively informed ways of acting to such situations, to the point of viewing them in more benign or neutral terms. This is a way in which mindfulness can also help with emotional problems. Evidence supports this, showing that mindfulness promotes desensitization and reduction in emotional reactivity to potentially threatening stimuli (Weinstein, Brown, & Ryan, 2009). Thus, mindfulness is a method in which thoughts are experienced as transient, more related to psychological events rather than reflections of absolute reality. This practice may facilitate and strengthen this capacity for positive reappraisal. Meanwhile, relaxation as a state consists of low tension and an absence of physical and cognitive arousal, and thus, a relaxation technique is any method that helps a person to achieve this state of calmnessand reduced stress or anxiety.
Probably the main difference between mindfulness and relaxation techniques can be found in the objective or goal of each practice. While in mindfulness, as we mentioned, we seek to focus on the present moment, experiencing things without judgment and just letting things be what they are, in relaxation we seek an experience that is felt as pleasurable, in the sense that is loaded with feelings of calmness and quietness, reducing stress and anxiety, often aid by the use of active imagery (imaging oneself on a peaceful landscape like a quiet beach or forest).
Given that mindfulness and relaxation techniques share very similar experiences, one question that arises is whether they have similar or equal effects on well-being and stress reduction, or if the differences between them are distinctive enough to the point that there might be different effects of each technique on these outcomes.
Generally, the evidence seems not to be so conclusive, perhaps because there have not been many studies carefully separating the techniques and their effects. However, some have looked at this, as in the case of Jain et al. (2007). As these authors mention, although mindfulness meditation interventions have recently shown benefits for reducing stress in various populations, little is known about their relative efficacy compared with relaxation intervention. So these authors conducted a randomized controlled trial examining the effects of a 1-month mindfulness meditation versus somatic relaxation training as compared to a control group in 83 students reporting distress. Psychological distress, positive states of mind, distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviors, and spiritual experience were measured, while controlling for social desirability. They found that both meditation and relaxation groups experienced significant decreases in distress as well as increases in positive mood states over time, compared with the control group. There were no significant differences between meditation and relaxation on distress and positive mood states over time. The meditation group however showed a larger effect size for positive states of mind than relaxation. The meditation group also demonstrated significant pre-post decreases in both distractive and ruminative thoughts/behaviors compared with the control group, suggesting that mindfulness meditation’s effects on reducing distress were partially mediated by reduced rumination. So, although brief training in mindfulness meditation and somatic relaxation have similar effects in reducing distress and improving positive mood states, mindfulness meditation may be specific in its ability to reduce distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviors, and this ability may provide a unique mechanism by which mindfulness meditation reduces distress (Jain et al., 2007). As we previously mentioned, mindfulness is a method in which thoughts are experienced as transient, more related to psychological events rather than reflections of absolute reality. In rumination, certain negative thoughts are hard to deal with because they are often regarded as true reflections of reality, surfacing constantly in our consciousness. In this sense, mindfulness offers a unique way of reducing stress when this is related to rumination, which is something that happens very often for many people.
In a study by Carrington et al. (1980), a total of 154 New York Telephone employees self-selected for stress learned one of three techniques: clinically standardized meditation (CSM), respiratory one method meditation (ROM) or progressive relaxation (PMR), or served as waiting list controls. At 5.5 months, the treatment groups showed clinical improvement in self-reported symptoms of stress, but only the meditation groups (not the PMR group) showed significantly more symptom reduction than the controls. This finding supports the idea that meditation might have additional capacity for reducing stress than relaxation techniques.Other studies, like the one by Feuille and Pargament (2015) found that mindfulness led to significantly reduced pain-related stress relative to simple relaxation in a group of students, providing modest support for the utility of mindfulness in pain management.
Similarly, Sharpe, Nicholson Perry, Rogers, Refshauge and Nicholas (2013), investigated the efficacy of mindfulness training in comparison with relaxation training on pain, threshold and tolerance during a cold pressor task. They found that mindfulness was effective in increasing curiosity and reducing decentring under conditions of high threat but not low threat. Mindfulness and relaxation appeared to exert influences under different conditions (i.e. mindfulness: high threat; and relaxation: low threat), but despite these cognitive effects being discerned under different conditions, the authors found no differences between mindfulness and relaxation on pain, tolerance or threshold in either threat group. Again, we can see here that mindfulness is specific in its potential to see on-going events and experiences in a receptive, attentive manner, without judging, which has implications for the way we perceive and respond to stressful situations and is something that appears to be distinctive of mindfulness compared to relaxation technique in general.
In a meta‐analysis by Eppley, Abrams and Shear (1989), the effects of relaxation techniques on trait anxiety were investigated, calculating the effect sizes for different treatments such as progressive relaxation, EMG Biofeedback, various forms of meditation, among others. It was found that most of the treatments produced similar effect sizes, except that Transcendental Meditation for example, had significantly larger effect size while meditation that involved concentration had significantly smaller effect.
So overall, what the evidence shows that mindfulness and relaxation both work and significantly reduce stress, but some meditation techniques like mindfulness appear to offer greater effects than relaxation. This might be due to specific mechanisms in mindfulness meditation where thoughts for example are experienced as transient, more related to psychological events rather than reflections of absolute reality, which can have a positive effect in reducing rumination, which in turn has an additional effect in reducing rumination-related stress and anxiety.
Carrington, P., Collings, J. G., Benson, H., Robinson, H., Wood, L. W., Lehrer, P. M., … & Cole, J. W. (1980). The use of meditation–relaxation techniques for the management of stress in a working population. Journal of occupational medicine.: official publication of the Industrial Medical Association, 22(4), 221-231.
Eppley, K. R., Abrams, A. I., & Shear, J. (1989). Differential effects of relaxation techniques on trait anxiety: a meta‐analysis. Journal of clinical psychology, 45(6), 957-974.
Feuille, M., & Pargament, K. (2015). Pain, mindfulness, and spirituality: A randomized controlled trial comparing effects of mindfulness and relaxation on pain-related outcomes in migraineurs. Journal of health psychology, 20(8), 1090-1106
Jain, S., Shapiro, S. L., Swanick, S., Roesch, S. C., Mills, P. J., Bell, I., & Schwartz, G. E. (2007). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Annals of behavioral medicine, 33(1), 11-21.
Luders, E., Toga, A. W., Lepore, N., & Gaser, C. (2009). The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage, 45(3), 672-678.
Sharpe, L., Nicholson Perry, K., Rogers, P., Refshauge, K., & Nicholas, M. K. (2013). A comparison of the effect of mindfulness and relaxation on responses to acute experimental pain. European Journal of Pain, 17(5), 742-752.
Weinstein, N., Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). A multi-method examination of the effects of mindfulness on stress attribution, coping, and emotional well-being. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(3), 374-385.