The Paradox of ‘Stresslaxing’: How Trying to Relax Can Sometimes Make You More Stressed

  • Health professionals advise that there are multiple methods to prevent or overcome the sensation of feeling “stresslaxed.”
  • Chronic stress has the potential to elevate several health risks, such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
  • Feeling anxious about searching for ways to unwind can actually elevate stress levels, resulting in experiencing a state of being “stresslaxed.”

Recognizing your own feelings of stress and acknowledging the need to take a break and relax is an important self-care practice that can help you maintain your well-being.

Finding strategies to relax can actually become stressful and cause you to feel even more stressed, creating a counterproductive “stresslaxed” effect. This can then lead to a harmful cycle of heightened anxiety and concern.

“This term describes the situation where anxious or stressed individuals attempt to relax and alleviate their stress by consciously taking a break or unwinding,” expressed Dr. Michael Schirripa, a psychiatrist, podcast host, and author of the forthcoming book Mindhunt, in an interview with Healthline.

When individuals try to forcibly relax, it can lead to increased anxiety and heightened concern regarding the effectiveness and efficiency of their relaxation efforts.

The clinical term for feeling anxious while trying to relax, also known as “stresslaxed,” is called relaxation-induced anxiety. This term was coined by Deborah Serani, Psy.D., who is a professor at Adelphi University and the author of the award-winning book, “Living with Depression.”

Based on research, individuals who already struggle with generalized anxiety or overthinking are more likely to engage in stresslaxing. Additionally, evidence suggests that those who experience stresslaxing may also be prone to experiencing panic attacks alongside their stress and anxiety. Furthermore, some individuals may even develop depression as a result of their inability to relax freely.

Is the brain opposed to being forced to relax?

The human brain often exhibits resistance to forced relaxation, especially the amygdala, a key region involved in processing emotions and detecting potential threats. This part of the brain is constantly vigilant, continuously scanning the environment for signs of danger.

“We should keep in mind that our brains are constantly active and are naturally inclined to experience worry. This is because anxiety serves as a survival mechanism, enabling us to remain vigilant and alert to potential threats,” Schirripa explained.

People who experience anxiety, worry, and persistent thoughts often struggle with cognitive control, which makes it challenging for them to set certain thoughts aside, as explained by Serani.

“According to some experts, certain individuals may feel the need to keep themselves preoccupied because, at a subconscious level, feelings of calm, spaciousness, and ease may trigger upsetting thoughts or memories related to past traumatic experiences,” she further explained.

Why do some people find it so difficult to unwind and relax?

Schirripa mentioned that individuals struggle to unwind because of outside demands and inner complexities.

The demands of work, school, family, and other responsibilities can create a constant feeling of being connected to the outside world and always available to others.

“Individuals may begin to feel pressured to fulfill the expectations of external forces, which may result in the impression that they have no right to allocate any time for themselves to unwind and relax.” – Schirripa

Serani noted that work time and leisure time no longer have definitive boundaries.

“Back in the past, people used to finish work at 5 pm, and the weekends were reserved for leisure and unwinding. Additionally, on Sundays, most stores were closed, making it easier for people to relax and spend time at home. However, these predictable routines and guidelines are no longer as prevalent in modern times,” she remarked.

Moreover, advancements in technology, accessibility, and other contemporary amenities have increasingly intertwined the boundaries between work and leisure, resulting in what Princeton University sociologist Dalton Conley has termed as “Weisure” – the fusion of work and leisure pursuits.

“So, it becomes very hard to carve out relaxation time,” Serani said.

The internal factors that can impact a person’s ability to relax include feeling a constant need to stay busy and not allowing oneself the opportunity to pause, unwind, and experience relaxation.

“Situations arise in which individuals are concerned that if they relax, they might become uninterested, or conversely, by slowing down and unwinding, they might worry that they’ll have to pay excessive attention to the thoughts or emotions within them,” Schirripa remarked.

Are there lasting effects of being unable to relax properly?

Chronic stress has been linked to a variety of health issues including high blood pressure, which in turn can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Additionally, chronic stress can lead to fatigue, ulcers, headaches, backaches, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. It’s important to address and manage chronic stress to maintain overall health and well-being.

Research has shown that neglecting to take time for relaxation and enjoyment can lead to an increase in depression, anxiety, as well as challenges in social interactions, relationships, and communication, as mentioned by Serani.

The nervous system can become “reset” to function at an excessively stimulated level if one is unable to effectively unwind and relax, as indicated by Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, who is a clinical psychologist, the founder of Priority Wellness, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

“It becomes increasingly challenging to induce a relaxation response over time,” she explained to Healthline. “I encounter individuals who report feeling restless, tense, and anxious in their body, without experiencing mental anxiety at all…this suggests the necessity to proactively reset their natural state of arousal through deliberate relaxation techniques.”

Strategies to help you relax

When trying to relax, Dattilo said first realize that relaxation is not as passive an activity as people have been led to believe, and it doesn’t come naturally to some people.

“I think one of the main reasons some people find it hard to relax is because it’s actually a skill we need to practice on a regular basis in order to fully experience its beneficial effects,” said Dattilo.

Often, people confuse relaxation with “zoning out.”

“This can certainly give our brain a break, but the real goal of relaxation is to ‘downshift’ our nervous system,” Dattilo said.

Downshifting happens through an active processTrusted Source designed to elicit the “relaxation response,” the physiological opposite of the fight-or-flight response.

“It counteracts the negative effects of stress and returns our nervous system to a homeostatic balance,” she said.

Triggering the relaxation response can be done through visualization, muscle relaxation, massage, breathing techniques, meditation, prayer, and yoga.

Try the following tips to set relaxation in motion.

  • Set boundaries between work and home life. “Also, consider powering down from technology early each night. Make self-care a priority and learn how to manage this every day,” said Serani.
  • Practice the Benson Relaxation Method, which involvesTrusted Source sitting in a comfortable position, closing your eyes, intentionally relaxing all the muscles, beginning at your feet and working up to your head, breathing slowly, for 20 minutes. “This will likely feel a little challenging or forced at first, so maybe start with 5 minutes and gradually work your way up,” said Dattilo.
  • Focus on a “done” list to recall what you’ve already accomplished. “Thinking about the to-do list perches you in the future, keeping you from being in the moment,” said Serani. “Highlighting your done list will aid in celebrating your finished chores and encourage relaxation. A done list helps you linger in the past.”
  • Engage in 5-minute meditation. “Studies showTrusted Source that even 5 minutes of deep breathing, silence, and restfulness can enhance mental and physical functioning,” Serani said. If you can go for more time meditating, consider a guided meditation with an app, or simply rest, nap, or enjoy some solitude, she said.
  • Feed your senses and ground yourself by using the “5,4,3,2,1 Technique” to reduce anxiety so you can relax more readily. “Ask yourself to find 5 things you can see, 3 things you can hear4 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste,” said Serani.
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9 Comments

  1. habeeb oladapo July 4, 2024at9:12 pm

    Sleeping early is the best

    Reply
  2. Praise Chukwuebuka July 4, 2024at9:14 pm

    I think we need 6- 5 hours rest

    Reply
  3. Isaac Godspower July 4, 2024at9:38 pm

    This is helpful

    Reply
  4. Isaac Godspower July 4, 2024at10:00 pm

    Wow …..

    Reply
  5. Aliyu Abubakar July 4, 2024at10:04 pm

    Always stay healthy

    Reply
  6. Ikechi james July 4, 2024at10:16 pm

    Be healthy

    Reply
  7. David July 4, 2024at10:37 pm

    Thanks for the healthy tips

    Reply
  8. Chukwuemeka ifeanyi Richard July 4, 2024at10:46 pm

    Like instead of calming your nerves it only brings about restlessness
    Thereby even make it worse than not even resting at all 😂

    Reply
  9. Faluyi Daniel July 4, 2024at10:54 pm

    I now know how to relief stress.

    Reply

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