Last week I wrote about using mindfulness to reach your goals. This week, the focus is on reducing stress, and yes, mindfulness is good for that too! But so are meditation and relaxation. So is there a difference? What is it? And which one should I be doing? Different teachers and practitioners often weave elements of relaxation, mindfulness and meditation into the one activity, making telling them apart even more confusing. Here’s my take on the differences.
Relaxation vs Mindfulness
Because mindfulness can cause a reduction in stress, it’s often confused with a relaxation practice. However, the true essence of mindfulness is being in a situation without judgement of it. Trying to increase relaxation is a judgement of the current situation – you want it to be more relaxing than it currently is! Relaxation practices often focus on directing our thoughts a certain way, and on doing things such as slowing down our breathing to increase calmness. With true mindfulness, you’re just in the situation, no matter what that situation is – rapid breathing and uncomfortable feelings and all.
Meditation vs Mindfulness
These two are much more closely linked. Some meditations are mindful meditations, adding to the confusion. To me, the essence of meditation is concentration. So you can meditate on the present moment and all that is happening in it and this is essentially mindfulness. However, with meditation you often aim to direct your thoughts and concentrate on something in particular. Meditation might have a focus on a word or mantra (e.g. ‘om’) or an idea (e.g. peace) or a feeling (e.g. gratitude). Meditation is also usually done away from stressful/active situations to enhance the ability to concentrate. Insights about solutions to problems, and feelings of connection with your true feelings about a situation, are associated with meditation.
Mindfulness vs Mindfulness
Yep, even mindfulness gets confused with mindfulness! Often when beginning to practise mindfulness, people are told to pay attention to their breath and limit distractions that encourage thinking. This gets people thinking that mindfulness is something to do, another thing to add to their daily busyness. But the thing about mindfulness is that you can practise it where ever and whenever. It doesn’t eat up any of your time. In fact, by focusing on the present rather than what you have to do, it often feels like getting time back, because when we’re mentally listing off all our plans and chores, we are to some degree, living the stress of those plans. In the moment, we only ever have one thing to do. We only focus our attention on one thing – whatever is happening right now.
How to Use this Knowledge to Improve Your Life
All these practices are useful. Depending on your personality, lifestyle and past experiences, one may sound immediately more attractive to you than the others. If so, go for that one. You’re much more likely to stick it and see its benefits! However, if you’re unclear about what might work best for you, then it can help to view each practice in terms of how it works to reduce stress. Depending on your source of stress, a certain practice may offer you superior benefits. If you’d like some guidance, below are my thoughts on the best uses for each.
Relaxation: Great for stress that is out of your control, particularly stress which has an identifiable cause and a clearly defined beginning and end point (e.g. a move, a client meeting, an argument). Practising relaxation either immediately before or immediately after the stressful event can reduce its negative effects on you. Relaxation is great for anxious type people, as the slow breathing which characterises most relaxation practices impacts the nervous system, and can halt the physical changes that anxious style thinking brings about.
Meditation: Great for stress which is related to events you can control, or when the stress itself comes from having to make a difficult decision. Meditating on the event or the decision can give you clarity as to what is the best course of action for you, by allowing you to focus on your emotional response as well as the options running through your mind. Meditating on decisions has the further benefit of allowing you to ‘compartmentalise’ the decision – that is, you give yourself permission to stop thinking about the decision all the time, and instead just focus on it during your meditation. This provides added stress relief. Great for those with low self-confidence and the indecisive.
Mindfulness: Great for when your stress is ongoing, particularly low level stress or stress which comes from being constantly busy or rushing, rather than stress due to overtly unpleasant events. Mindfulness brings your attention to right now, and for low level stress, this is often enough to remove yourself from the stress entirely. Plus, for busy people, it can take zero extra time while making it feel like you’re getting time back – by fully living each moment, it no longer feels like time is moving so quickly –the opposite occurs. The best practice for those with depressive style personalities – mindfulness engages you in the world, a great antidote to the isolation and inaction which accompanies a depressed style of thinking.
So next time you’re feeling stressed, and your usual stress relief techniques just aren’t working, you’ll have a better idea of what to try next. You can go by the description, or on the nature of your problem, or even the nature of your personality, to choose the most effective technique for you.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.