STRESSLAXED? When trying to 'switch off' makes your anxiety 'switch on'
Have you ever had a rare moment and thought that a bit of ‘quiet time’ might go down a treat? You run yourself a warm bubble bath, light a fragrant candle, grab your favourite book and slide into the water with the intention of relaxing, but found quite the opposite happening? Instead of calmness washing over you, you’re laying there with an overactive mind, a pile of worries, guilt about wasting time plus a tirade of thoughts around how many loads of washing you still have.
Turns out a lot of us experience this …’stresslaxing’. Not a clinical term, but distressing enough to contribute to an increase in stress and anxiety that can put us off the much-needed downtime we need in this busy world we live in.
Stresslaxing describes 'relaxation-induced' anxiety, which is essentially your stress response on your nervous system turning on when you’re attempting to turn off. This happens to between 30% and 50% of people when they try to do relaxing activities, causing physical symptoms of stress, such as rapid heartbeat or sweating along with psychological symptoms like worry and rumination. Research has also found that people with generalized anxiety disorder often can feel the most anxiety while practicing relaxation techniques.
But if relaxation has been found to be so good, why can it feel so bad?
Sometimes we have become ‘wired’ to be busy all the time, so slowing down can feel uncomfortable for a while. We can even feel guilty that we ‘should’ be doing something more productive. Other times people feel strange about relaxing because maintaining worry makes them feel in more control.
Our body sends us stress signals for a reason. It’s communicating information to us about our environment, and unless we listen, and action those signals, our body continues sending stress signals in order to prompt us to act and resolve the problem. Therefore, attempting (and failing) to relax instead of addressing the causes of your stress can increase your anxiety.
However uncomfortable relaxation is for some people, it still pays to learn how to do it, and push through the initial discomfort as much as you can.
1. Remember Your Why: Keep reminding yourself why you need to relax. Relaxing is part of having a balanced life and helps level you out from the busier moments of your day. Your mental and physical health is important, so remembering that you are doing something positive for your health will make you feel less stressed.
2. Listen to Your Stress Signals: Your body is trying to alert you that a problem needs fixing, so it’s activating the fight or flight response and rallying the physiological resources to help you do this. Don’t ignore these signals during the day. Make sure you seek to remove or change the stressors or learn some strategies to help you cope with them. Otherwise, your amazing brain and body will keep reminding you.
3. Journal Your Thoughts & Feelings: Writing down what’s going on in your day, and how you feel about it can help you understand the source of your stress. Once you know why you are stressed, then you can make a choice of how to tackle it. We can’t meditate our way out of massive deadlines at work, but knowing why we are stressed out, helps us problem solve it.
4. Think Just of Enjoyable Activities That Calm You: Relaxing doesn’t have to mean meditating and mindfulness. The most important thing is finding a relaxing activity you enjoy and that calms you. Whether that’s cooking, painting, reading, dancing, hanging out with friends or even hitting the gym, it needs to be able to help you switch off mentally from your day’s stress. Always choose an activity you like and not what you think relaxation has to be.
5. Reframe Relaxation as Recharge: For some people, they have become too ‘wired’ to consider stopping and don’t entertain the benefits that relaxation can have on their workload. Reframing relaxation as taking a short mental break to recharge from their work that will end up helping improve their output. Ask any elite performer, taking a mental break is crucial in recharging and resetting the mind for optimal performance.
It's perfectly normal to feel a little out of sorts with relaxation, particularly when you are not used to it. So always start for small amounts of time, and then notice the positive effects it can have on your mental health.
You never know, stresslaxing might turn into relaxing quicker than you know it.