Does Relaxing Make Anxious People More Anxious?

trying to relax while anxious

I used to believe that relaxing was a complete waste of time. If I’m feeling anxious — I would think to myself — then why would I elect to spend my time doing “nothing” when I could use that time to cross things off my to-do list and make the anxious feelings go away? Isn’t solving this problem right now the only way for me to feel better?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 40 million American adults — roughly 18% of the population — have an anxiety disorder. While one might think relaxing is the opposite of being anxious, Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S, and Ohio-based Talkspace therapist, points out that for people who experience anxiety, the concept of relaxing can actually increase feelings of stress and anxiety because it feels so difficult. “Even when folks try to relax,” explained O’Neill, “they may feel like they aren’t doing it right, which can then lead to an increase in stress.” So why do we it?

Well, relaxing can really help you manage anxiety. Below, explore four reasons why.

1. You Learn to Accept Your Anxiety

I pretended for a while that I didn’t have anxiety, probably because I thought admitting it would make me appear weak. However, it was only after I started to accept my experience for what it was that I began to feel better. It was a bit counterintuitive, but the less I resisted the anxious feelings, the quicker they went away.

O’Neill finds slowing down and relaxing to be an important step in learning to accept your anxiety. “Instead of focusing on pushing the anxiety away,” she said, “the intention is to simply allow the experience of anxiety to happen without doing anything about it.” While the long term goal might be to incorporate intentional relaxation-based techniques like meditation into your life, O’Neill often starts by simply helping individuals learn to be mindful. If the thought of traditional meditation seems unachievable, you might try distracted meditation.

2. You Stop Judging Yourself

Having anxiety can come with a whole host of negative feelings such as “I’m a failure,” “I’m not doing this right,” and “Why can’t I be normal like everyone else?” We live in a society that often views the world in terms of black and white and if you don’t meet the criteria of what is “normal,” which is really just “average,” you can wind up feeling like there is something wrong with you. But who wants to be average anyway? This is where taking a moment to pause and surrender to the things that are outside of your control is beneficial.

Almost across the board, our society is uncomfortable with feelings. People are often taught at an early age that some feelings are “bad.” O’Neill often works with her clients to unlearn these early habits by first slowing down and surrendering to “what is.” “Instead of telling themselves that a particular feeling, like feeling anxious, is bad,” said O’Neill, “I help them accept that it’s there and then focus on moving through the moment even if they feel uncomfortable.”

3. You Are Able to Be Present

When I’m feeling anxious, it’s hard for me to enjoy the present moment. If I don’t intentionally slow down, I’ll run from one thing to the next without ever appreciating whatever I’m actually doing. Whether that’s a morning walk with my husband, a lunch date with a friend, or quality time with my grandma I have to focus on being in the moment because my natural inclination is to think about what else I could be doing that would be more “productive.”

O’Neill emphasizes the importance of starting small and building up to a more intentional mindfulness practice. For example, a first step in helping someone who is anxious be more mindful might look like spending one or two minutes each day simply being aware and present in the moment. From there, O’Neill might incorporate acceptance-based techniques to help clients accept the experience of anxiety without labeling, whether good or bad, and without trying to push the anxiety away away. After that, she might introduce more intentional meditation activities that can help an individual begin to incorporate more relaxed states into their life.

4. You Develop New Skills

Learning how to slow down, relax, and enjoy the present moment can positively impact all areas of your life. While there are a lot of different resources and tools out there to assist in helping you develop these new skills, here are three of O’Neill’s go-tos:

  • Mindfulness: A great way to incorporate a present-focused mindset into one’s life.
  • Meditation: Helpful in intentionally incorporating relaxation into one’s life.
  • Mantras: O’Neill likes the idea of coming up with a word or phrase to help focus on the moment. Something as simple as “just breathe” or “this too shall pass” can be a great way to keep perspective during those difficult moments.

Anxiety will always be something I have to navigate on a regular basis. However, I am learning that it doesn’t need to consume every minute of my day. By taking time to relax, weaving in daily moments of mindfulness, and reminding myself that the anxious feelings won’t last forever, I am able to stay in the driver’s seat of my own life.

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