Overcoming Relaxation Induced Chronic Anxiety

February 25, 2015

Chronic anxiety is a broad term describing a variety of anxiety symptoms and categories.

One of these categories is labeled relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA), which is a phenomenon that occurs in people who have an anxiety attack when they try to do something relaxing. For example, someone who tries to meditate may find they become more frustrated and antsy because they can’t control their thoughts.

Before discussing this newly-labeled wonder, let’s take a brief look at what a chronic anxiety disorder actually is, the symptoms of an anxiety attack, and why some people with the disorder find that relaxation can actually exacerbate the issues.  Fortunately, too, where there’s a will, there’s a way and it’s possible to overcome relaxation-induced anxiety with a bit of will-power and the help of loved ones and professionals.


What is a Chronic Anxiety Disorder?

Chronic literally means incessant or never-ending.  Generalized anxiety disorder is a chronic condition that is characterized by extreme, irrational, and often uncontrollable worry.  It starts with that heavy feeling of apprehension when you expect a certain situation or activity to go badly.

Anxiety is not usually about what actually happens, but what the person thinks will happen.  These are generally based in negative thinking and pessimistic speculation.

Anyone with an anxiety disorder has likely been given every piece of advice they can handle from changing diet and exercise routine to practicing meditation to trying acupuncture or spa treatments to help them control anxiety symptoms.  Sadly, however, many people find that these relaxation methods only exacerbate their symptoms and make life unbearably worse than just dealing with the symptoms in their own way.

There is a difference between a chronic anxiety disorder and “normal” worry.  Everyone has doubts and worries in everyday life.  It’s perfectly natural to be anxious about a test, an interview, a presentation, finances, etc.; however, the difference is that with an anxiety disorder the thoughts are intrusive, excessive, debilitating, and persistent.  Symptoms disrupt daily activities and the ability to function and make decisions.


What are the Symptoms of Anxiety?

Anxiety symptoms range from person to person depending on severity of their condition and what kind of anxiety they have.  Not every person will experience the same group of symptoms, and many may not even realize their symptoms are actually representative of an anxiety attack.  Some people may experience just one or two symptoms, while others may carry a constellation of them.

Generally speaking, however, other than the intrusive thoughts and doubts, other common anxiety symptoms include, but are not limited to:
Pervasive feelings of dread
Irritability and edginess
Feeling out of control
Difficulty with focus and concentration
Procrastinating because of apprehensive thoughts about the outcome
Avoidance behaviors
Nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps
Feeling jumpy and scared for no reason
Shakiness and trembling
Having tight muscles that begin to hurt after a while
Difficulty falling or staying asleep


Why Relaxation can Cause an Anxiety Attack

It is important to note here that you don’t have to have generalized anxiety disorder or even any other chronic anxiety condition to experience relaxation-induced anxiety.  In fact, there are millions of people who suffer with symptoms without being diagnosed.

We are finding that in our fast-based, chaos-driven culture, it is becoming more and more difficult for people to be able to sit in stillness and achieve a calm state of mind without feeling overwhelmed by worry and intrusive thoughts.  However, for the most part, those who experience any of the above anxiety symptoms while trying to relax probably has an underlying chronic disorder.

Relaxation-induced anxiety happens when activities that are supposed to be calming trigger worrisome thoughts that have a snowball effect into a general anxiety attack. 

Things like taking a vacation, listening to music, doing yoga, or meditating may cause muscles to tense, the heart to race, and excessive feelings of frustration in someone who has this condition.  Furthermore, after suffering from a few anxiety attacks while trying to relax, one will develop an irrational fear of relaxation or any activity that is supposed to help calm them down.

Additionally, those who have relaxation-induced anxiety may also experience fear just after they becomes relaxed.  Like a sudden feeling of, “oh my goodness, I have too much to do to be sitting here!”

In this sense, many people with relaxation-induced anxiety find that they are in fact able to relax, but that anxiety symptoms and fears occur just after they reach a calm state of mind.  This is what develops into the fear of relaxation. For people with this condition, relaxing activities have the opposite effect – they wind the person up rather than down.

A survey developed to examine this phenomenon showed that people who developed a fear of relaxation were usually afraid of what thoughts would run through their mind when they quieted down, as if they were afraid of the memories and the emotions that would arise as a result of the thoughts.

Additionally, many were afraid of the social ramifications of relaxing like people thinking they were lazy or out of control.  They also didn’t like the feeling of not relaxing “correctly.”

Relaxation-induced anxiety is not yet listed as a diagnosable anxiety disorder, but there are symptoms that resemble an anxiety attack that are a direct result of trying to calm down.  Since there is no clinical diagnosis as yet for this condition, overcoming it is left up the individual, family, friends, and maybe even counselors or support groups.


How to Overcome Relaxation-Induced Anxiety Disorder

If you don’t have an underlying chronic anxiety disorder already, then learning to overcome relaxation-induced anxiety may prove to be a bit more difficult because you don’t have the support or coping techniques learned through a trained counselor.

Generally speaking, counselors who specialize in anxiety disorders are more capable of teaching these coping mechanisms than any online article; however, we do have some ideas of things that could work based on our own research into the condition, as well as personal experience.

Clearly, the traditional relaxation methods like meditation, music, exercise, etc., are not going to work for this condition, so it’s time to take an unconventional approach.  First, try a distraction method while doing a relaxation activity.  For example, if you want to use meditation, chant a mantra while sitting still and breathing.  You can use ancient Sanskrit mantras or one you create yourself like “I am successful,” or “I am happy and healthy.”

Other distraction methods could be jogging or running while listening to music, singing and dancing while cleaning the house, etc.  Achieving a peaceful state of mind is not about stopping thoughts, but about enjoying them.   

If the distraction method doesn’t work and you are still having anxiety attacks from trying to wind down, try a completely different activity like reading, writing, painting, or other creative outlet that you haven’t tried yet.  If you find you are constantly experiencing symptoms and you don’t already have a counselor, it may be time to seek one for support and guidance on how to handle anxiety symptoms.

If your fear of relaxation is caused more by your fear of what other people will think of you or of what your own thoughts will reveal about yourself, then it’s time for spiritual healing.  Whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Buddhist, Atheist, or whatever else, you must learn to accept yourself fully before you can learn to be at peace in everyday life.


Can’t relax? Got chronic anxiety? Share your story in the comment section below.

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6 comments on “Overcoming Relaxation Induced Chronic Anxiety

  1. Thanks for this post. It’s worth raising awareness of this as meditation is becoming a big trend and people – albeit a few I’m sure – may not realise that it could lead to some anxiety issues worsening. Me, personally, benefit a lot from meditation when I actually do it. The mantra system seems like a good approach as it really does ground you in the moment and can focus your thoughts on the now moreso than not using mantras.

  2. Usually anxiety is caused by some kind of confusion in what you truly desire or want to do or happen, relax your mind and your physical body. Exercise is a good distraction as said here, because it will release the tension, but your mind the main driver of your thoughts here.

  3. Michelle May 31, 2018

    Wow. I thought this was a thing I made up. For years I thought I must be wrong because why would anyone ever get anxious when trying to relax? What’s wrong with me? Thank you for posting this. Now I know I’m not alone.

  4. I developed an anxiety disorder during work . I was a teacher and while advocating for my students in trying to get them supplies, newer textbooks, class trips, etc., administration (principal, assistant principals and district officials) harassed me almost daily for three years.
    My colleges professors never even hinted at public funds or school politics. I feel let down and disillusioned at my chosen profession of close to 40 years.
    I never received the supplies or texts nor was I given the go ahead for any class trip.
    I will not discuss the harassment here (a/k/a extreme bullying) as I have done so repeatedly with my doctor and therapist, and my Bp rises when I do so.
    I practice relaxation by distractions: walking at a comfortable pace (not rushing through it), biking, swimming, reading, breathing, plenty of water throughout the day, observing and listening to wildlife and nature, among other things, and I am glad your article mentioned that I am not “lazy” for doing so.
    My anxiety (and depression) is pervasive and affects my daily functioning whereas I will limit myself to no more than two to three tasks (paying bills, food shopping, housework, etc), and in the morning only and rest or try to relax the rest of the day by using distractions above.
    I limit social events even with family and friends. (Too much stimuli). I avoid crowded places and loud people or loud music.
    There should be criminal laws against supervisors who deliberately bully subordinates, but there are none.
    And it’s getting worse—watch the news.