Though it sounds counterintuitive, relaxation can be an anxiety trigger for some people.
In theory, we all understand that relaxation is an important part of life and that “all work and no play” is a recipe for mental health disaster. But for some people, the act of relaxing isn’t so straightforward. In fact, under some circumstances, it can even induce anxiety.
There are many causes of relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA), a little-known but very real condition.
Many effective treatments are available for those who experience RIA, but understanding the link between these two very different states is an important part of the process.
Relaxation-induced anxiety is defined by an increase in physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety experienced while a person is attempting to relax.
It’s known as a paradoxical syndrome, meaning that it involves an apparent contradiction — naturally, you’d expect that making an effort to relax should lower anxiety.
Although it’s not a diagnosis recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), RIA has been discussed in medical literature since the 1980s.
According to a 2012 study, some experts estimate that around 15% of people have experienced RIA.
RIA doesn’t mean you can’t relax at all. A typical presentation might look like this: you start making an effort to relax and enter a parasympathetic state, which is sometimes known as the body’s “rest and digest” response.
After a little while in this state, your heart rate and breathing start to increase, your muscles tense up, and with those physical symptoms comes a feeling of anxiety.
Relaxation-induced anxiety hasn’t been widely studied, but there are a few different theories about what can cause it.
If you have a strong need for control, you may find it difficult to relax because you associate relaxation with a loss of control.
On the other hand, you associate stress and hypervigilance – being highly alert to perceived threats – with safety. As a result, trying to “let go” feels uncomfortable and can trigger anxiety.
According to a theory known as the contrast avoidance model, this is because an anxious person may use worrying as a way to avoid confronting other negative emotions.
A 2019 study showed a significant link between contrast avoidance and RIA. Researchers theorized that constant worrying becomes a protective behavior for some people with anxiety, allowing them to avoid coping with strong shifts in emotions.
In other words, if you’re always stressed out and mentally preparing for the worst, you believe you can avoid being blindsided when something bad happens. It’s impossible to be fully relaxed while also bracing yourself for danger.
So, if worrying and hypervigilance make you feel safe, then trying to relax can have the opposite effect.
Because relaxation-induced anxiety isn’t a diagnosis in itself, research into treatments is limited. But if you often find yourself experiencing anxiety when you’re just trying to chill out, some techniques can help.
The first step is becoming aware of your anxiety as it’s happening. It may present as some combination of physical symptoms, such as:
- an increased heart rate
- butterflies in your stomach
As well as psychological symptoms, like racing thoughts and an overwhelming feeling of worry.
If you notice that you consistently get anxious when you engage in a particular behavior, it’s useful to take note. Specific triggers may tell you something about the root of your anxiety.
Relaxation techniques that require you to sit still, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, may be especially difficult for people with RIA.
Alternatively, you could focus on exercises that promote relaxation through physical activity like:
Focusing on your body and surroundings, rather than the act of relaxing in itself, can reduce the likelihood of your anxiety being triggered.
It’s been theorized that exposure therapy may be helpful for RIA. Typically used for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), therapists use exposure therapy to help a person overcome fears.
It involves gradually exposing the person to the fearful stimulus in a safe and controlled environment.
If you’re interested in trying exposure therapy, it’s essential to ensure that you do so under the care of a trained therapist or physician.
Relaxation-induced anxiety can be a confusing and frustrating condition. Many traditional treatments may worsen RIA, and because it seems self-contradictory, you may be tempted to downplay your symptoms or attribute them to something else.
But “I have to relax” is a thought just like any other, and if you find yourself stressed about trying to de-stress, you’re far from alone.
Sometimes, just becoming aware of the relationship between relaxation and anxiety can be enough to break the pattern.
In other cases, you may benefit from distracting yourself by trying a relaxing physical activity or exploring your anxious thoughts through therapy.
Remember that your body has a natural, innate ability to relax and recharge; by working through your feelings, you can rediscover it.