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Depression: Can relaxation techniques help?

Created: ; Last Update: January 12, 2017; Next update: 2019.

Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation can help relieve mild to moderate depression. But they aren’t as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Depression is very common: It is estimated that 15 out of 100 adults – in other words, 15% or about 1 in 7 adults – in Germany will have depression at least once in their lives.

Typical symptoms of depression include feeling down for a long time, listlessness, not enjoying things and generally not being interested in anything. Activities that you used to like are no longer enjoyable. Depression sometimes also causes physical symptoms such as tiredness and sleep problems (insomnia). Other problems such as anxiety or pain can arise too. Severe depression is associated with a higher risk of suicide and requires professional treatment.

The most common treatment for depression is medication (antidepressants) or psychological treatment. Relaxation techniques or herbal products made from St. John’s wort (hypericum) are used to treat depression too.

Relaxation techniques

One widely used relaxation technique is called progressive muscle relaxation, also known as Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation or deep muscle relaxation. It involves lying down and focusing on a particular group of muscles – first consciously relaxing them, then tensing them for a while, and then completely relaxing them again. These steps are then repeated with other muscle groups until the entire body is relaxed. The aim is to reach a deep state of relaxation and improve your awareness of your own body and tense areas.

Another example of a relaxation technique is autogenic training. Here you sit or lie down in a comfortable position that allows you to completely relax your muscles. Then, by repeating short phrases in your mind – for example, “My arms are heavy” – you try to achieve intense feelings such as heaviness, warmth, coolness and calm. The aim is to feel deeply relaxed, and get rid of stress and negative feelings.

Yoga is another traditional relaxation technique. It includes various elements such as breathing exercises, meditation, muscle relaxation and certain physical poses. Yoga aims to help people become aware of their own body and feel relaxed. One other way of relieving muscle tension is through massage. In this information, however, we will focus on techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and autogenic training.

Research on the effectiveness of relaxation techniques

Researchers at the Cochrane Collaboration analyzed studies which looked at the effectiveness of relaxation techniques in people who have depression. The Cochrane Collaboration is an international network of researchers who work together to systematically review studies on the effectiveness of medical treatments.

The researchers found 15 randomized controlled trials. In each study, one group of participants learned a relaxation technique, and the other group did not. The results of the two groups were then compared at the end of the study to see whether the relaxation technique had worked.

A total of about 800 people took part in the studies – roughly 70% of them were women. In most of the studies, the participants were between about 30 and 40 years old. Some studies also included people who were under 18 The majority of the participants had mild to moderate depression, so it isn’t possible to draw conclusions about severe depression based on the findings of these studies.

Progressive muscle relaxation was looked at in 10 of the 15 studies. The other studies tested various other techniques such as autogenic training, or combinations of techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation as part of a yoga course. The participants mainly learned the relaxation technique in courses taught by professional trainers. The courses consisted of between 5 and 40 sessions.

The people in the comparison groups had various other treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a certain type of psychological treatment. In some of the studies the people in the comparison group were put on a waiting list and only had their treatment once the study was finished. That way the researchers were able to get a rough idea of how effective relaxation techniques are compared to no treatment. There were not enough studies comparing relaxation techniques with medication. There is also not yet enough research to be able to draw any conclusions about autogenic training.

Progressive muscle relaxation can probably help – but not as much as psychological treatments

By the end of the studies, the participants who had learned progressive muscle relaxation were noticeably less depressed than those in the “no treatment” comparison groups. But the studies were too small to provide clear answers to most of the questions. Also, they only lasted a few months at the most, so it isn’t clear how long the effect of the relaxation technique lasted and whether the participants carried on using the technique once the studies were over. The studies didn’t look into possible negative effects of relaxation techniques. But the researchers didn’t notice anything to suggest that the techniques were harmful or that the participants considered them to be unacceptable.

There is still too little scientific proof to be sure that most people who use these techniques will benefit from them, though. As soon as further research is done, the Cochrane researchers will update their review and we will report on their findings here.

The studies that compared relaxation techniques with cognitive behavioral therapy also showed that the people who did progressive muscle relaxation felt better at the end of the studies. But cognitive behavioral therapy had a greater beneficial effect.

People who have depression might find it very difficult to motivate themselves to learn something new, like a relaxation technique. The Cochrane researchers came to the conclusion that relaxation techniques can probably help relieve depression – particularly in people who, for instance, don’t want to take medication or don’t have any other treatment options. Depending on the severity of depression, relaxation techniques can be used in addition to, or instead of, other treatments. But if the symptoms don’t improve it can be a good idea to seek professional advice and help.

Sources

  • Jorm AF, Morgan AJ, Hetrick SE. Relaxation for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2008; (4): CD007142. [PubMed: 18843744]
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    Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. We do not offer individual consultations.

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