Relaxation Induced Anxiety

“I can’t cut down on work hours because there are a set of redundancies coming up. I can’t settle down at home because of my wife’s thyroid problems. My youngest has got Naplan coming up, so I have to be there for her. My parents are elderly, and I can’t worry them with my problems”. Herman* was on a roll. He was highly stressed (to say the least) and his wife had insisted he come see me. I suggested we do a mindfulness meditation activity – and that’s when Herman really became anxious.

How do you solve a problem like anxiety? Anxiety is usually (but not always) associated with one or more specific worry. “I’ll have a panic attack”. “There’s a recession coming”. “My partner is cheating on me”. “Something terrible is going to happen to my kids”.

Anxiety urges us to avoid these worries coming true. Avoid by planning and problem solving, so that they never occur. And if not, avoid by stop thinking about them, so we don’t have to imagine them at all. There are many ways we can avoid thinking about our worries. Some people drink and take drugs. Some people look at the tv, laptop or phone. And some people, like Herman, stay busy.

Staying busy can be an adaptive (useful) way of coping with anxiety. We get stuff done. However, it can also trap us in a negative spiral:

For people who are caught in this trap, anxiety can result from any attempt to chill out: Relaxation Induced Anxiety. This is because activity and busyness are ways to cope with anxiety, and it is always unsafe to remove a coping strategy. In a classic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation, both increasing and decreasing workload will lead to greater anxiety. There is literally no escape!

No easy escape that is. For relaxation is the answer. The first step is to identify and challenge negative automatic thoughts associated with relaxation. “If I’m not working, I’m going backwards”. “If I give myself a break, I’ll become lazy and never work hard again”. “If I don’t work so hard, a disaster will fall”. These are some common myths related to relaxation.

Secondly, there needs to be exposure to relaxation and the symptoms of relaxation like deep, slow breathing. Take time to chillax. In fact, enforce time doing nothing. Mindfulness meditation is a great way to do this. Of course, for people with Relaxation Induced Anxiety this will lead to more anxiety in the short time. Many people with type of anxiety feel awkward focusing on their breathing. However, once you get used to it, it becomes ever easier to feel your body relaxing.

People like Herman might need to identify their long-term life-traps – their schemas. Herman had Self-Sacrifice, Unrelenting Standards and Vulnerability Schemas. He felt that disaster was imminent and that he had to work ever harder for himself and others just to survive. He explored the childhood origin of these and was able to let go of some of these old beliefs.

This skin is the only one we have. We’d do well to feel comfortable within it. A life worth living includes both hard work and relaxation. Permit yourself to relax. You will be safe.


* names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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