4 Suggestions For What To Do When Relaxing Feels Terrifying

Published on: 18 Sep 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
child lying face down on sofa

My husband and I recently moved out of New York City to become digital nomads. Our first stop on our new #vanlife adventure was a tiny rural town in Montana. There’s probably the same number of people in the town where we’re staying as our New York City apartment complex. We have beautiful 360-degree mountain views, nightly bubble-gum pink sunsets, and more horses than people on our morning walks. It’s exactly what I wanted — peace and quiet. Yet, I found myself incredibly uncomfortable the first week we were here.

The internet was so spotty I wanted to cry. I was two hours behind my team, making me feel like I needed to cram an entire day’s worth of work into a single morning. I couldn’t stop checking Instagram, as if to keep up with the frantic pace of life I was used to in a big city even though I was no longer there. It was as if I was so used to measuring my worth by how much I accomplished that, when I was suddenly faced with not being as productive as I wanted to be, a core part of my identity was being challenged. And then it dawned on me, I was terrified of relaxing.

If you, similarly, are terrified of relaxing, here are 4 therapy-based suggestions to consider.

1. Take a Look at Your Environment

Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizational guru, is onto something when she talks about paying attention to your physical space and only surrounding yourself with what sparks joy. Coming from a family that holds onto every pamphlet, pen, and bottle of hybrid shampoo and conditioner from the Holiday Inn, the idea of purging my belongings was scary at first. With time, though, I’ve grown to appreciate having more plants than pairs of pants and being able to find everything when I need it. I find it’s much easier to relax and feel grounded when I feel good about the space I’m in.

Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, agrees, sharing that she even pays attention to the setting she offers her clients. “Having a place that invites them to relax is a must,” she explained. “I have soft lights and warm colors, a small water fountain, and very comfortable couches.”

2. Create an Imaginary Container

For clients who have a hard time relaxing, during their therapy sessions together Catchings actively teaches them tools to deal with their fears or anxieties around taking it easy.

One of her go-to tools is to create an imaginary container where the client can place unwanted thoughts or feelings that prevent him/her/them from relaxing. I’ve also found it helpful to imagine placing my unwanted thoughts on a cloud — literally going through the motions of chucking them like a ball into the sky — and watching them float past me. It helps remind me that I am not my thoughts.

3. Take a Deep Breath

I often find myself in a mentality where everything is urgent and no matter how fast or long I work, I’m always behind, I’ll never be able to catch up. When my anxiety flares up like this, I know it’s time to take a break. It seems counterintuitive at the time because my brain tricks me into thinking there isn’t enough time. But I’ve found there is always time to take one deep breath. One deep breath can be enough to quickly recalibrate your nervous system and bring you back to the present moment. Catchings loves teaching her clients the 4, 7, 9 breathing technique — inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven, exhale for a count of nine.

4. Check In with Your Nervous System

I am sympathetic-dominant, which just means I mostly operate from a fight or flight place, ready to tackle any dangerous or stressful situation that comes my way. While this means I tend to be very efficient and can get a lot done, it also means I have a difficult time relaxing and am prone to burnout. Being in my parasympathetic nervous system — the rest and digest side — is less familiar to me, so it registers as uncomfortable or threatening.

Catchings finds that most people like me who find it hard to relax are responding to past expectations or experiences. Given how much pressure there was to always be “on” in school and at work, it’s not surprising that some people have a hard time taking a break. Check in with your own nervous system, do you tend to be more sympathetic- or parasympathetic-dominant?

With COVID-19, we are all being asked to confront our relationship with being busy — or rather, our relationship with relaxing. As meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Even though the world has slowed down and some, like me, have moved out of a busy city, people who weren’t comfortable with relaxing to begin with will still need to heal the part of themselves that ties their worth to productivity. The conditioning runs deep. It takes a lot of unlearning to remember that we are deserving of rest and play, too.

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