You are taking a stroll in your neighbourhood park and happen upon an older gentleman on the grass. He is sitting down; his body in an upright and dignified position, legs-crossed, and eyes closed. He is taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths and appears well-etched into the nature around him. The question is: is he engaging in a relaxation exercise or a mindfulness exercise? And does that distinction even matter?
I would like to think so. Relaxation and mindfulness meditation can be very similar visually. And oftentimes, they achieve a very similar goal of improved mental well-being. However, where they differ is the purpose of the practice or the reason why somebody might practice one or the other.
The Purpose of Relaxation
Relaxation strategies are often used to treat anxiety disorders.The intention of relaxation is in the name itself – it is a way to reduce stress through engaging in actions that have anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) properties. Oftentimes, they are behaviours that are incompatible with stress.
For example, breathing exercises (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing) work by slowly down your breathing and increasing oxygen exchange, which can reduce blood pressure and release tension in your body.
Other exercises, such as guided imagery meditations take you away from your current situation and brings you into a better, more stress-free place – mountains, beaches, or wherever your heart desires.
A third relaxation exercise is progressive muscle relaxation, which involves systematically tensing and relaxing parts of your body to notice the difference between these states and reduce tension. If you’re interested in more information about these relaxation strategies, check out this post on a few relaxation strategies to manage anxiety!
As you can see, relaxation strategies reduce overall basal arousal and knock down the physiological symptoms of anxiety (that fight-or-flight response) a few pegs to promote a calmer day-to-day life. Regular practice can be great to support a lower baseline of anxiety, though some of these strategies, such as breathing exercises, can be used in the moment when you are stressed. Emotion regulation strategies can also be great for tackling distress in the morning (check these posts out for skills to deal with crisis situations and more chronic stressors).
A few anxiety symptoms that relaxation strategies can benefit include:
– Racing heart
– Shallow/rapid breathing
– Muscle tension
– Trembling or shaking
– Chest pain or discomfort
– Shortness of breath
– Feeling dizzy, unsteady, or faint
– Feeling restless or keyed up; on edge
The Purpose of Mindfulness
Mindfulness involves being aware of the present moment in both its internal and external experience in a non-judgmental manner. Although mindfulness and relaxation can both lead to feeling calmer after the exercise, the purpose of mindfulness is not relaxation. Instead, mindfulness is about being able to objectively observe and accept all sorts of experiences – good and bad.
Your mind might be racing; there might be a lot of discomfort in your body; and you might be experiencing negative thoughts or emotions. However, mindfulness is about accepting that these feelings can exist and being able to sit with them. In that way, mindfulness can sometimes be very tough to practice because life happens and our mind and body isn’t always our friend.
And that’s okay.
By being able to sit with these experiences, we begin to take away power from negative thoughts and emotions – which oddly, can actually lead to you feeling more calm and able to handle these tougher situations.
Relaxation is about lessening a stressful situation; mindfulness is about accepting the situation for what it is and letting goa random psych student – aka me
Which one should I practice?
As a clinician, I am always an advocate for patients having a number of tools in their kits for all sorts of situations. Both relaxation strategies and mindfulness have their roles in managing anxiety (and are evidence-based strategies for mental health issues beyond anxiety). However, understanding the difference in intention between these two modalities can be helpful. Oftentimes, I will hear people say: “I don’t think I am doing mindfulness right – it wasn’t enjoyable and I feel more stressed”. And my goal in these situations is always to bring it back to the fact that mindfulness is not necessarily always a positive experience. In fact, having more challenging mindfulness exercises sometimes can actually be helpful to support learning how to sit with negative experiences, being able to observe them non-judgmentally, and letting them go.
– Relaxation and mindfulness meditations can look the same but they have different purposes.
– Relaxation supports a reduction in stress whereas mindfulness supports being able to sit with negative emotions (which can indirectly lead to reduced stress)
– A combination of both mindfulness and relaxation exercises can support mental well-being. Choose exercises that are enjoyable and you can stay consistent with!
Featured image credits: <a href=’https://www.freepik.com/vectors/mindfulness’>Mindfulness vector created by freepik – http://www.freepik.com</a>