Why trying to relax can trigger your anxiety

Trying not to worry can bring on its own anxiety. (pic credit: Aleksandra Sabelskaia)

The headline of this post sounds like a paradox. Why would efforts to achieve relaxation end up bringing on more anxiety?

Yet research from Penn State shows that if you’re suffering from anxiety then you may strategically choose worrying over relaxing. Researchers found that people with anxiety can actively resist relaxation for fear that the gap between relaxing and anxiety may be too severe should something bad happen. It feels safer to continue worrying.

The study looked at people with and without generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) to measure how sensitive they were to changes in their emotional state, and took them through some relaxation exercises before asking them to watch a video that would elicit fear or sadness.

The researchers found that people with GAD were more likely to be sensitive to sharp spikes in emotion, and this sensitivity was linked to feeling anxious during sessions intended to induce relaxation. It is as though they are making themselves anxious on purpose as a way to protect themselves from the letdown if something bad happened.

They fear their anxiety will spike suddenly after they choose to relax, and so prefer instead to maintain a constant state of low-level worry. That is preferable to giving way to relaxing activities, which can bring on Relaxation Induced Anxiety (RIA). It may explain why people who experience anxiety aren’t able to respond to typical anxiety-reducing techniques such as mindfulness, visualisation and deep breathing. They can instead experience a spike in their anxiety while trying to relax.

I’m imagining that anyone reading this post who hasn’t experienced anxiety will be wondering why anxious people can’t switch off their worry. And a person with anxiety reading this post might identify for the first time with the phenomenon I’m describing.

Advice from Michelle Newman, professor of psychology, is as follows: “People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts. The more you do it, the more you realise you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”

Or, if you find that you really can’t switch off with intentional relaxation exercises, try other activities that absorb your mind and body. Doing things that put you in flow – such as puzzles, knitting, gardening, cooking, painting, reading etc – can all help give you some respite from your anxiety.

The full research, The paradox of relation training: Relaxation induced anxiety and mediation effects of negative contrast sensitivity in generalised anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder, is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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