Most of us know that the worst thing you can tell someone when they are worried, angry, or upset about something is to “relax.”
Whether you have been on the receiving or offering end of that incredibly unhelpful comment, you know that when you’re stressed about something, no amount of trying to relax seems to work. And, especially if you’re being told to “relax,” you know that simply the knowledge that you are not relaxed and cannot relax can make your stress even more pronounced.
So, if we already know that telling someone else to relax can have the opposite effect than we’re looking for, why would we think that trying to force our own minds and bodies to relax would fare any differently?
This is exactly what we will explore today as we dive deeper into one of the lesser-known types of anxiety: relaxation-induced anxiety.
Relaxation-Induced Anxiety in a Nutshell
Before we can get into the details of why people experience this type of anxiety, you need to know what it is that we are talking about. Essentially, relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA) refers to when someone experiences an increase in anxiety symptoms while attempting to relax. In other words, relaxation-induced anxiety is a paradoxical syndrome where trying to relax causes the opposite reaction (increased anxiety).
Now, it is important to note that individuals who experience RIA are not incapable of relaxing. Rather, this particular brand of anxiety may trigger new or increased anxiety symptoms in situations where the person is trying to actively relax.
Unfortunately, relaxation-induced anxiety is not as well studied as many other forms of anxiety — though it has been discussed in mental health literature for decades. Because of this lack of studies and literature, determining a direct cause of RIA is not yet feasible. However, there are a few common theories for why people may experience RIA, such as:
- Attempting to relax when in an anxious state interrupts our body’s natural ability (and desire) to return to a neutral state.
- People with a strong need for control may associate relaxation with losing control.
- Individuals who associate hypervigilance or stress with safety may feel unsafe or uncomfortable when relaxing, which can trigger anxiety symptoms.
Why Do We Experience Relaxation-Induced Anxiety?
The truth is, the idea that we should treat ourselves like we would our closest and most treasured friend is actually spot on in most cases. If your friend is struggling with something in their life, chances are you don’t just tell them to suck it up and figure it out — or tell them to relax and stop worrying about it. Most likely, you would let them know you are there for them, lend them an ear or a shoulder, and do what you can to help them get through what is bothering them — without just telling them what to do.
But unfortunately, many of us do not display the same level of sympathy for our own problems. Now, you may say, “Well, that is because I am in charge of my own body, so I can tell it what to do.”
While you are not wrong, and your body is your own, it is not entirely accurate to say that you fully control it. The human body (and brain) is incredibly complex, and if we made each and every decision needed to keep it running intentionally, we would simply not be able to do it. So how do our bodies keep themselves running efficiently, then?
To understand how our bodies work, we need to take a quick detour into neuroscience to look at the nervous system. Put simply, the nervous system is divided into two primary parts: somatic and autonomic. The somatic nervous system is where our conscious activity is regulated — this is moving our body, interacting with our surroundings, and our intentional thoughts and actions.
On the other hand, the autonomic nervous system is in charge of all the unconscious functions our bodies need to survive. These include breathing, keeping our hearts beating, and digesting food to absorb energy. This is the part of our nervous system that is primarily affected by anxiety. However, there is another divide within the autonomic nervous system: sympathetic and parasympathetic. These two divisions work together to maintain a balance that keeps us safe and content.
Your sympathetic division is most involved in anxiety and stress — as it is responsible for our “fight or flight” responses. Your parasympathetic division, on the other hand, provides the counterbalance for your sympathetic division. It is sometimes known as the “rest and digest” response.
So, why is all of this important? Put simply, the human body wants to be in balance — or homeostasis, as it is called in neuroscience. When you are anxious, your sympathetic division takes control of your autonomic nervous system.
But, our bodies naturally combat that power shift by activating the parasympathetic division, which slows our heart rate and breathing so we can calm down. However, because both of these divisions are within the autonomic nervous system, they are unconscious. This means that when we try to actively calm ourselves down using our somatic nervous system, it can actually interfere with our body’s ability to activate the unconscious parasympathetic division that we need to balance the already active sympathetic division.
When we are anxious, our body unconsciously activates its fight or flight response — raising our heartbeat, quickening our breathing, and halting digestion. In response to this, our bodies will automatically and unconsciously activate the counter-response to our fight or flight, our rest and digest response. This response slows the breath, decreases the heart rate, and promotes digestion.
Our nervous system activates this natural and unconscious response because it wants to maintain homeostasis — the balance that keeps us functioning the most effectively.
However, when we try to relax consciously, we pull the focus to relaxation rather than allowing our body to reach homeostasis on its own. This can limit our body’s ability to activate the rest and digest response, making it harder to actually relax and promoting further anxiety as the fight or flight response goes unchecked.
How to Cope with Relaxation-Induced Anxiety
While there is no one-size fits all approach to coping with RIA, there are some strategies that may help you learn to manage this anxiety more effectively in your life. Some of these include:
- Practicing self-awareness and recognizing RIA when it occurs.
- Noting when and where you find yourself experiencing RIA.
- Trusting your body to balance itself rather than trying to force it to relax.
- Opting for movement-based relaxation activities — such as yoga, tai chi, or walking — rather than stationary ones that may become overwhelming.
If you have tried the strategies mentioned above and are still struggling with RIA, you may want to consider seeking personalized guidance from a mental health professional, like a therapist or counselor. Therapy can be an excellent tool to help you discover underlying causes for what you are struggling with in your life and build the skills you need to cope with those struggles moving forward.