Anxious People Also Get Anxious From Relaxing
There’s a name for these feelings: relaxation-induced anxiety.
By Shayla Love
03 October 2019
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Is there anything more stressful than relaxing? The abject terror of a friend bringing you to a meditation class; the restless, sinister feeling of savasana during yoga; the panicky confusion of trying to “breathe from your diaphragm.” And don’t get me started on the boundless, meaningless abyss that is vacation.
There is a name for such feelings: relaxation-induced anxiety.
Researchers have known about relaxation-induced anxiety since at least 1983, when a paper found that, in people with chronic tension, around 31 percent who tried progressive muscle relaxation (in which you focus on tensing and relaxing one set of muscles at a time, from head to toe), and 54 percent who tried meditation, ended up having high levels of anxiety instead. An up-to-date estimate is that anywhere from 17 to 53 percent of all people have experienced this phenomenon.
Relaxation-induced anxiety isn’t the same as not being able to relax. People who deal with this can initially relax in various ways, but that relaxation morphs into feelings of moderate or intense anxiety, said Tina Luberto, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who created a measure of the fear of relaxation in 2012. “Once they achieve a relaxed state, they suddenly become anxious or afraid and may notice things like their heart rate increasing or their breathing becoming more shallow,” Luberto said.
Relaxation-induced anxiety isn’t a mental health disorder on its own, it’s more a symptom. There hasn’t been a lot of research on it, so the reasons why it happens are still unclear. Clinicians have guessed that since many relaxation methods ask people to focus on internal cues, it might make people more sensitive to the tension they’re feeling. Or maybe they’re afraid of losing control, or concerned others think they’re lazy.
In a new study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, Penn State psychology professor Michelle Newman provided evidence for another potential explanation: Anxious people don’t like to relax because it makes the next time they’re anxious feel so much worse.
In a 2014 study, Newman and her colleague Sandra Llera asked people with and without generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) to either relax or worry before watching a fear-inducing video. The control group said that relaxing helped them cope, while the anxious subjects said the exact opposite: The worrying helped them deal with the fearful video. In a 2017 paper, Newman also found that people with GAD were more likely to say they preferred negative moods over feeling good.
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