Warning: Mindfulness may not be relaxing.

This month we thought it would be helpful to discuss the differences between relaxation techniques and mindfulness meditation practices. Both have benefits. However, we (Erin and Josh) often find that people talking about mindfulness meditation, mistake it for another way to relax. The mistake is more than understandable since there is a lot of overlap between relaxation exercises and mindfulness meditation practices.

First, let’s take a look at relaxation techniques. Such techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and others. These techniques can be powerful tools for reducing anxiety and tension when they are practiced. Additionally, regular practice of them has been shown to have health benefits. While practicing a relaxation technique, one actively engages in the technique in order to obtain a specific body response, such as slowing the breath, heart rate, and loosening the muscles – the opposite of the fight or flight stress response.

In mindfulness meditation practices, we may also focus on the breath and body, as well as thoughts/images in the mind, but from a perspective of curiously observing them in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and with kindness. While relaxation techniques seek to gain control over the body’s reactions, mindfulness meditation aims to increase awareness of physical, emotional, and thought reactions in daily life. Stress reduction often comes in the form of mindfulness practitioners gaining awareness of how their bodies, emotions, and minds influence each other and create stress reactions or perpetuate them beyond the stressful event itself. Mindfulness practitioners also increase awareness of reflexive thought and behavior patterns that may contribute to long term stress, thereby enhancing their ability to have a choice in how best to respond.

Sometimes, mindfulness meditation is relaxing. Many times, as people practice mindful meditation and increase their awareness of the present moment in their daily life, they find peace in the present moment. For instance, they may become aware of thoughts about something stressful of the past or worries about the future that are creating stress reactions in the body. With redirecting awareness to the present, people often find that there is nothing threatening in that very moment and a sense of peace may follow. One may also find some peace while meditating by holding the worries in an accepting awareness with compassion. Furthermore, mindfulness and relaxation can be combined. For instance, once a person has awareness of muscle tension and shortness of breath while meditating, they may choose to take a few deep breaths to calm the body and then return to simply observing the breath.

Nevertheless, people often find that mindfulness meditation is not relaxing. This is helpful! During meditation, as we quietly direct awareness toward the present moment, we are confronted by much of what we may want to avoid or “fix,” such as regrets, fears, and pain. However, some of the value of mindfulness meditation comes from practicing the skill of holding these experiences in our awareness with compassion rather than avoiding them or trying to immediately fix them. With practice in returning to the present, we can learn to bring mindfulness to any aspect of daily life. Thus, one can not only mindfully observe a beautiful sunset or taste a piece of chocolate, but also mindfully rush to work or address a child’s misbehavior. Bringing mindful awareness to such events as they unfold helps us to stay present with what is actually going on in life rather than reacting solely to the story line playing in our mind.

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