Meditation versus relaxation

I have previously mentioned a study comparing meditation with relaxation. I have managed to dig it up and have a closer look at it.

The issue is where the benefits of meditation come from. Is it the practice of meditation itself? Or is it simply the fact that you’re sitting down, relaxing, forgetting your worldly concerns for a few precious moments?

It’s a tough question, because the two go together so closely. The way to answer it is to compare two groups of people, each doing one or the other, and try to keep the conditions of the test as similar as you can between groups. You’d measure things like mood and distress, and you could also throw a control group in too.

This is what the study did.

The participants were medical students, 81 in total, who were randomly split into the groups – meditation, relaxation, and no-treatment control group.

The meditators had four 1.5 hour sessions, spread over four weeks. The exercises included:

“…body scan meditation,in which the practitioner focuses attention on each part of the body to notice sensations that arise; sittingmeditation,where the practice is focusing non-judgmental awareness on whatever arises moment by moment; Hatha yoga, where one practices gentle stretching while maintaining attention on subtle movements in the body; walking meditation, where one practices walking slowly, with awareness; and loving-kindness meditation, where one focuses attention on feelings of caring and love for one’s self and others to cultivate compassionate awareness and action in everyday life.”

The relaxation exercises…:

“[integrate] techniques of autogenic relaxation using the six autogenic phrases used by Schultz, progressive muscle relaxation (using tension and release of muscles throughout the body to relax), simple breathing techniques (such as simple diaphragmatic breathing and breathing with counting), and guided imagery to give a comprehensive course on stress reduction via a focus on bodily relaxation.”

To keep conditions similar, the participants rated the warmth of the room and the abilities of the instructor, and the results came out even.

So which group did best?

Well, in terms of reducing distress and increasing positive mood states, the results were more or less even. Both relaxation and meditation were better than nothing, and meditation was slightly – but not significantly – more effective than the somatic relaxation exercises.

However, meditation did have an edge in one area – reducing distractive and ruminative thoughts. This is as you’d expect, given the concentration-building nature of mindfulness meditation. Statistical modelling indicated that part of the benefits of reduced distress in the mindfulness group were caused by this decreased rumination.

One other thing is worth mentioning – the results were recorded 7 to 14 days after the end of the test, AND they were taken just before the students had their finals! So the take home from this is, both of these techniques are effective, even in times of high stress, and also, don’t worry if you miss a day!

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