Why Trying to Relax Is So Damn Stressful
Relaxation-induced anxiety is a real psychological diagnosis. Here’s how to tell if you have it.
My weeknights often contain very little chill: On nights when I go straight home from work, I typically spend the hours before bed doing something utterly responsible. I clean, or I work on freelance projects, or I catch up on all the emails I ignored during the day.
Technically, this productivity is by choice, but it doesn’t really feel like a choice to me: It feels like what I’m supposed to do. Would I rather be watching Grey’s Anatomy while eating a leisurely dinner on my couch? Yes. Does the thought of actually doing that fill me with dread? Also yes. For so many reasons — guilt, worry that I’ll be seen as lazy, fear that I’m wasting precious free time on something dumb — sitting at home and relaxing stresses me out.
People who know me well have said (usually with love, occasionally with exasperation) that this is a very “me” problem. But I’m far from the only one to have a hard time letting go. “Many of my patients find relaxing to be very stressful,” says Harris Stratyner, a New York-based psychologist who specializes in helping people overcome unhealthy behaviors. The struggle to relax is so widespread, in fact, that psychologists have given it a name: relaxation-induced anxiety, or RIA for short.
By one estimate, somewhere between 17% and 53% of adults have experienced RIA at some point. It’s not that they can’t relax at all, it’s that doing so quickly brings on feelings of anxiety. For some people with RIA, the very physical sensations you might associate with being calm — letting your shoulders drop, deep breathing — are triggers.
Since RIA was first identified in the 1980s, researchers have been trying to figure out how best to help sufferers learn to chill out — especially because the people who are stressed out by relaxation are typically the ones who need it most.
One of the biggest breakthroughs happened in 2012, when the psychologist Christina Luberto, then a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Cincinnati, created a diagnostic survey called the Relaxation Sensitivity Index. Designed to help people better understand what causes their RIA, the survey asks users to rate their agreement with 21 different statements, broken down into three categories: social (for example, “I worry that when I let my body relax, I look unattractive”), physical (“I don’t like activities like meditation because of the way they make my body feel”), and cognitive (“I don’t like to relax because it makes me feel out of control”).
A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that for people with generalized anxiety disorder, RIA might be a psychological defense mechanism. If something stressful happens when you’re in a blissed-out state of zen, the thinking goes, the sudden spike in anxiety will feel worse than if you’d just kept your guard up the whole time.
Clearly, this isn’t the healthiest way to operate. “People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts,” Michelle Newman, a professor of psychology at Penn State and one of the study’s co-authors, said in a statement. “The more you do it, the more you realize you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”
In a very funny, uncomfortably relatable Vice story about wigging out while visiting a spa at Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, writer Davis Harper received similar advice from Luberto: “Present-moment awareness without the intention to relax has actually been shown to increase relaxation,” she said “It’s this paradoxical thing where when you try to not relax, you might find yourself more relaxed than when you’re intentionally trying to relax.”
But trying not to relax is kind of like that famous brain puzzle about the white bear: Trying not to think about it will just keep it cemented firmly at the forefront of your consciousness. I asked Stratyner how one might go about finding relaxation without trying.
“I use a lot of what’s called mindfulness meditation,” he says. “I will have [clients] listen to my voice, where I’m having them focus and stay in the present moment.” If you can’t do this under the watchful eye of a professional, Stratyner says, YouTube can be a great resource. Here’s a 10-minute session you can try.
Full disclosure: I have tried and failed to get through that mindfulness video three times already. But that, Stratyner argues, is all part of the process. “What’s the saying?” he says. “‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.’” He tells me not to expect instant results, throwing in a dad joke that, to be honest, feels pretty targeted to me, an anxious, social-media-addicted millennial: “This isn’t Instagram. It isn’t going to be ‘insta’ anything,” he says. “You can learn to go through anxiety and desensitize yourself to it, but you have to be patient.”
Baby steps. Before I can book my own Icelandic spa trip, I’ll focus on the in-the-moment details of vegging out on a Tuesday night: the sight of an improbably hot doctor cracking an impossibly far-fetched medical case on my TV screen, the smell of the greasy delivery dinner perched in my lap. As far as exposure therapy goes, things could be worse.