The irony of becoming anxious when you’re trying to relax
Have you ever sat down to do nothing other than to simply relax only to find yourself feeling anxious all of a sudden? What you’re experiencing at that moment is relaxation-induced anxiety.
Relaxation-induced anxiety, also known as paradoxical anxiety, is anxiety that occurs whilst doing an activity or taking medicines which are meant to relieve anxiety.
Typical examples of activities that some people experience anxiety whilst doing are breathing techniques, meditation, listening to music, self-hypnosis, guided visualisation, massage, spa day, and walking, to name but a few.
With all of these activities, we are seeking to induce a relaxation response in our body so that we feel calm and relaxed, both physically and mentally. But for a small portion of the population, who are typically experiencing general anxiety, this does not occur. Instead, they experience the ironic effects of trying to relax whilst they are under stress or anxiety (Wegner, Broome & Blumberg, 1997)
I’ve had a number of clients over the years who listen to relaxation and self-hypnosis audio tracks and comment that they felt more anxious. Feeling anxious when you’re trying to relax can be very frustrating when you are trying to make improvements to your overall anxiety levels.
It is not the relaxing activity per se that is causing the anxiety but relaxation-induced anxiety may be associated with an internal locus of control (attributing your success/failure to yourself rather than external circumstances), a generalized fear of becoming anxious, and a fear of losing control. (Braith, McCullough, & Bush, 1988; Heide & Borkovec, 1983)
People who experience relaxation-induced anxiety tend to be able to relax but it is once they are relaxed that they start to experience the anxiety and then that relaxing feeling just gets swamped. Let’s look at the possible reasons for this in more detail.
Internal locus of control
There is nothing wrong with attributing your success or failure at a particular activity to yourself. Personally, I think it’s a good way of thinking. It means you take responsibility for your actions, your successes and your failures. When it comes to relaxation, you’re the one doing the relaxing. Your success at relaxing is down to you and if you are anxious, relaxation is not something that comes easily to you. And so, you might struggle at first. Signs that are counter to the desired relaxation become more obvious to you and so you try harder to “do it right”. But the harder you try, the more relaxation seems to elude you. And you become anxious because of your inability to relax.
A generalised fear of becoming anxious
When you are experiencing a period of time where you’re not anxious, it is quite likely at some point you will start to worry about when the anxiety will come back. This worry can gain momentum and become a fear. So as you start to relax whilst doing any activity that is specifically designed to help you relax, you might start to worry about the anxiety popping up when you don’t want it to. As a result of this worry, you start to feel anxious which then interrupts your relaxation.
Fear of losing control
When you relax, especially during activities such as meditation, guided visualisation, self-hypnosis and massage, you can get to that stage where you’re so relaxed that you’re almost unaware of your body and become just your thoughts. Or perhaps you’re not thinking about anything at all. You can become so relaxed that it feels almost like you are unable to do anything. For some, this can make them feel like they are not in control of what is happening, becoming anxious as a result. This then reorients them to the room and what they are doing in order to gain control of the situation.
So you can see how fear, worry and anxiety can interfere with relaxation, making it more likely that anxiety is induced when you try to relax.
Relaxation is an important part of therapy for those wishing to reduce their levels of day to day anxiety and stress. What is good to know for those who feel anxious generally or as a result of trying to relax is that relaxation is not needed for hypnotherapy to be effective (Banyai & Hilgard, 1976). In addition to this, research shows that even if you experience relaxation-induced anxiety, you can still benefit greatly from relaxation-based treatments (Newman, Lafreniere, & Jacobson, 2018), including hypnotherapy.
- Banyai, E. I., Hilgard, E. R. (1976). A comparison of active-alert hypnotic induction with traditional relaxation induction. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 85(2), 218-224.
- Braith, J. A., McCullough, J. P., Bush, J.P. (1988) Relaxation-induced anxiety in a subclinical sample of chronically anxious subjects. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. Sep;19(3):193-8.
- Heide, F. J., Borkovec, T. D. (1984) Relaxation-induced anxiety: mechanisms and theoretical implications. Behav Res Ther. 22(1):1-12.
- Newman, M. G., Lafreniere, L. S., Jacobson, N. C. (2018) Relaxation-induced anxiety: Effects of peak and trajectories of change on treatment outcome for generalized anxiety disorder. Psychother Res. Jul;28(4):616-629.
- Wegner, D. M., Broome, A., Blumberg, S. J. (1997) Ironic effects of trying to relax under stress. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Volume 35, Issue 1, January, Pages 11-21