When Relaxing Makes You Feel Anxious: why your brain may deliberately be keeping you worried.
Updated: Oct 27, 2019
We all know that relaxation is supposed to be good for you, right? New neuroscience research from Penn State suggests that people with anxiety and depression, however, may be actively resisting or avoiding relaxing.
The research shows that people may be keeping themselves in an on-going state of worry in order to avoid experiencing the jump in anxiety levels that can occur when something bad happens to them - together with the corresponding feelings of let down or disappointment.
When we are sensitive to the effects of sudden shifts in emotion - moving quickly from a calm state to one of fear, for example - we are more likely to feel anxious while engaging in activities designed to promote relaxation, such as mindfulness, meditation, or massage. Falling asleep and staying asleep can present a challenge too.
This is known as "relaxation-induced anxiety," a phenomenon that occurs when people become more anxious as they start to let go. The theory revolves around the idea that the brain is keeping us in a state of worry intentionally as a way to avoid experiencing sudden or unexpected shifts towards negative emotion.
And here's the twist: because most of the time the things we worry about don't come to pass, the message that gets reinforced in the brain is, "I worried and nothing bad happened, so I'd better carry on worrying."
Being in a state of continual anxiety isn't actually that helpful, of course, and can lead to a host of physical and mental problems in the long run. It would be healthier if we were able to allow ourselves to experience shifts in anxiety levels, and find ways to tolerate the let down we feel when something bad happens to us.
The more we do this, the more confident we become in our capacity to cope. We can then feel safer to lower our guard and allow ourselves to experience more relaxation. Mindfulness training and somatically-based interventions such as Somatic Experiencing, can help us learn to do this. They work by increasing our awareness of our interior landscape and teaching us how to become more adept at navigating it. They also support us in learning to let go and live more fully in the moment.
© Gavin Conochie 2019
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