Relaxation Induced Anxiety Is Real — Here’s What You Need to Know

And no, telling someone to "just relax" isn't helping.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 25, 2020

For someone with anxiety, being told to “just relax” or “calm down” is infuriating. And — in case you’re wondering — it’s not helpful at all. Now that we’re cooped up at home for the foreseeable future thanks to the coronavirus, people are telling us to take this time as a chance to relax. But that’s easier said than done.  In fact, many people with anxiety disorders may actively resist relaxation. I fall into this group. I have relaxation induced anxiety, assuming that the minute I let my guard down, something horrible is going to happen. And because I was relaxing, I’d experience a jarring jump in my anxiety. As it turns out, a recent study from Penn State University examined exactly that.

The research, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, found that people who are more sensitive to swift shits in negative emotion (hi!) are more likely to feel anxious when they’re actively trying to relax. Triggering situations could include being led through relaxation exercises. This is known as “relaxation induced anxiety.” Scientists have known about this condition since the 1980s, but its cause remains unknown.

“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 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.”

The researchers conducted tests where participants were led through relaxation exercises and then shown sad or frightening videos. After each part of the trial, the participants took a survey to keep track of their levels of negative emotions. The researchers found that people with generalized anxiety disorder were more likely to be sensitive to sharp spikes in emotion. This was linked to individuals feeling anxious during relaxation sessions. They observed the same results in people with major depressive disorder, although the effect wasn’t as strong.

“Measuring relaxation-induced anxiety and implementing exposure techniques targeting the desensitization of negative contrast sensitivity may help patients reduce this anxiety,” Hanjoo Kim, a graduate student in psychology and co-author of the study said in a statement. Kim also indicated that it would be important to examine relaxation-induced anxiety in other disorders, like persistent mild depression.

So if you’re someone with relaxation induced anxiety, know that you’re not alone. And right now, we’re all looking for new ways to cope, so understanding this aspect of anxiety treatment may help.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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