If the intention is to reduce stress, does this mean that all stress reduction approaches work in the same way? The answer is no, relaxation response and mindfulness meditation affect the brain in different ways. These two well-known and thoroughly researched interventions for stress-reduction (one based on Herbert Benson’s work on the ‘Relaxation Response’ and the other being the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the work of Jon Kabat Zinn) were compared by a team at the Harvard Medical School (click here).
Although both approaches implement meditation, they come from different traditions and employ different techniques to reduce stress. The research reported that the programs, though both beneficial in reducing stress, work through distinct neural mechanisms. Both have benefits but they work in different ways. The body scan is a technique used in both interventions. The scan delivered in the relaxation response program involves placing awareness and deliberately relaxation the part of the body. Scans showed that this technique affected parts of the brain that are associated with deliberate control. In the mindfulness body scan (which is taught as deliberately placing awareness without changing anything), areas of the brain associated with sensory awareness and perception were affected.
Both programs are beneficial but they are working in unique ways. Knowing these characteristics may be helpful to understand when one is making a choice about stress reduction programs.