Does trying to relax or meditate make you anxious? Isn’t it supposed to make you feel calm? If it doesn’t then it’s what you call relaxation induced anxiety.
So I recently got this email addressing this common problem.
“Hi, I have just been trying out your relaxation techniques on the grounding course which I’m finding extremely useful – but during the progressive muscle relaxation I started crying and my immediate reaction is to stop relaxing so that I stop crying. Do you have any suggestions about how best to tackle this? Many thanks.”
I recently ran a poll on my channel and 61% of people said that trying to relax or meditate made them feel anxious, guilty or panicky. So what the heck is going on here?
In this video we’ll troubleshoot what might be making you feel anxious when you try to relax.
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Relaxation Induced Anxiety
Relaxation induced anxiety happens for around 15% of the population, but it’s much more common for people with depression or anxiety.
The exercises that are supposed to make you feel better like meditation, mindfulness, and self-care actually make you feel worse.
So what’s going on? I can think of a handful of reasons why this might be happening. And the first reason is trauma.
1. Trauma And Hypervigilance
In response to trauma, like emotional abuse our nervous system activates the Fight/Flight/Freeze response.
Stress hormones flood our body and our muscles tense. We’re braced for action, to defend ourselves, or to fight.
But if we’re safe now if we’re just listening to a progressive muscle relaxation exercise, why would we still be having a trauma response?
Sometimes, especially when we have chronic, unresolved trauma, old trauma responses get stored as habitual tension in our bodies.
And essentially this is a defense mechanism, it protects us from harm. It’s like keeping our guard up all the time.
And for all of these defense mechanisms, relaxing can actually open us up to feeling very vulnerable and exposed. It feels unsafe to let down those walls.
If we look at the 3 states of the nervous system from polyvagal theory, the safety state is also about connection and that can feel very vulnerable, the activated state- is where people often dwell, they just get stuck in chronic hypervigilance– an on-guard state, and that makes relaxing feel exposed and vulnerable- especially if you grew up in a home where connecting with people wasn’t emotionally safe.
You’re protecting against external threats. This is closely related to the next reason, where you’re guarding against internal threats.
2.You’re a highly sensitive person who has needed to carry anxiety and worry as a protective shield against big emotions that may come up like disappointment, regret, or hurt.
Because you feel every emotion so intensely, you subconsciously carry worry around as a protective armor. “I’d rather expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised than expect the best and be disappointed”
This is called the “Contrast Avoidance Model”- because you fear a sharp spike in uncomfortable emotions, you prefer to worry to maintain a low-level negative mood rather than being happy or relaxed but risk feeling really sad.
Because your worry serves to protect you from feeling, trying to relax and let go of that worry is very vulnerable, you’re being asked to take off your armor and that feels scary or uncomfortable- it also may allow feelings that you’ve been suppressing to surface.
Contrast avoidance- or avoiding letting yourself feel is closely related to Major depressive disorder and Generalized anxiety disorder.
So if that’s the case- what do you do? Of course, I recommend working with an individual provider, asking your therapist what they think, but one way forward may be to create some time and space to work through these feelings, get really curious about this feeling, just take the time to allow yourself to get shaky and cry.
Maybe journal about it, explore it, and see what comes. These feelings might have a message for you, and if you listen to them, they might resolve, but at the very least you can create some space for them.
3. Relaxing makes you feel guilty (never good enough)
My grandma literally had a book that said “I feel guilty when I relax.” But it’s true, she did. And so did my mom, and so do I.
I think this can be caused by a couple of things. One is our Western society which emphasizes goal-driven, highly individualistic overachievers and being the ideal person.
This sends the message that taking time to relax is lazy and selfish. But when we grow up immersed in our culture, these beliefs are often subconscious, so we don’t even realize why we feel anxious or guilty when we relax.
Also, if you grow up in a home where there are these unwritten rules, that you’re supposed to constantly assume what everyone around you needs and constantly walk on eggshells and bend yourself into a pretzel to accommodate others, sitting down and relaxing can feel like you’re sinning.
And underneath all that people-pleasing is the belief that you’re never good enough. So you keep trying to be “good enough”, then you feel like you should constantly be doing something, and you’re a bad person if you aren’t.
Feeling like you’re never good enough can trigger the FFF response because you fear that you will be rejected from the tribe, or by God for not working all the time.
You feel unsafe and you try to create a sense of safety by running about keeping busy all the time. But guess what, running doesn’t make you feel safe, it makes you think you need to keep running to feel safe.
This is closely related to a scarcity mindset- when you believe there’s never enough time, never enough money, never enough opportunities, the house is never clean enough, you’ve never worked hard enough as a parent, this scarcity mindset might fuel a constant surge of stress chemicals and the fear, that if you relax, something bad will happen.
If this is the case, clarify what you are actually afraid of. Write it down. Challenge it. Is it true that you have to be busy all the time? Is it helpful? Is this making the home that you want to live in? Clarify what you really do want.
Visualize what it would feel like if you accepted yourself as you are. Write about it. Practice loving kindness (Kristin Neff has some great exercises).
Imagine God’s grace and love. And use your behaviors to retrain your mind. If you intentionally stop rushing about, if you intentionally go slowly and methodically, and you’re still safe, your mind can rewire to learn that you can be safe without running about being busy all the time.
4. You’re meditating wrong.
Sometimes people think that the goal of meditation or relaxation is to force your mind to go blank, or to force your body to relax. Both of these approaches can backfire.
Instead, learn to practice the principle of non-striving and observing. Get better at watching your thoughts and feelings and be curious about it, instead of trying to force them to change.
Mindfulness is a skill- an exercise, not a quick fix for feelings. You could watch a couple of my videos on willingness to learn more about making space for your feelings.
5. Habit- it’s comfortable
Your nervous system prefers a familiar hell to an unfamiliar heaven.
When you’re accustomed to feeling anxious, busy, activated, you may literally feel so uncomfortable if you’re in the parasympathetic state of your nervous system.
Sometimes we are just so used to being tense, anxious, or tight, that relaxing feels foreign to us. The way to reverse this is to just need to practice more. Create space for that unfamiliar feeling of relaxation, be willing to feel it.
Real quickly we’re going to touch on 2 other reasons why relaxing makes you anxious.
6. You’ve been avoiding dealing with a problem
You’ve been constantly distracting yourself from solving a problem at home or work. Let’s say that you’ve got credit card debt and every time you sit down to meditate, you start worrying about it.
It may be a sign that you need to sit down, look at your bank account, make a budget and cut up your credit cards. It may be a sign that you need to take some action to solve some problem.
7. Executive Function
Some people’s brains, especially those with ADHD, have a much harder time than the average person directing their attention to slow activities like relaxation or mindfulness.
This can improve with practice, medication, or just accepting your own neurodiversity.
Here are the 7 reasons why relaxing might make you anxious and what to do about it.
- Trauma and hypervigilance- make space for working through those feelings
- You carry worry like armor- get better at feeling- practice willingness
- You subconsciously believe that your worth depends on your busy-ness- clarify your values and practice self-compassion
- You’re meditating wrong- learn to observe instead of force it
- It’s a habit- just keep practicing
- You’re avoiding something that you should be solving instead
- Executive Function- practice, consider treating or accepting your ADHD
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