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Anxiety

Why Some People Get More Anxious When They Try to Relax

Understanding paradoxical anxiety.

Key points

  • Relaxation is analogous to "tapping the brakes" of our nervous system's fight-or-flight response.
  • Not every relaxation method will work for every individual.
  • Some people paradoxically get more anxious when they try to relax.

Relaxation training is one of the very first scientifically validated methods of psychological treatment (e.g., Wolpe & Lazarus, 1966). In essence, relaxation is simply decreasing arousal of the body’s “fight or flight” branch of the nervous system. Indeed, in general terms, our nervous system has an accelerator and a brake; much like a car. And by easing off on the accelerator and tapping the brake, people can throttle down their arousal levels and enter a state of relaxation that is incompatible with anxiety.

Telling someone they would benefit from relaxation, however, is too vague because there are several types of relaxation techniques. So, suggesting that someone do relaxation is like telling someone to take a painkiller. What kind of painkiller? Acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, codeine, etc.? Of course, the answer would depend on the specific circumstances. There are advantages and contraindications to all classes of analgesics. Similarly, not all types of relaxation training and relaxation methods are suitable for certain people.

Is standard progressive muscle relaxation the best method for a specific person? Or would autogenic phrases, diaphragmatic breathing, visualization techniques, mantra meditation, or mindful body scans be best? This is why it is important for clinicians to have a good repertoire of techniques, approaches, strategies, and methods. The more arrows they have in their therapeutic quiver, the greater the likelihood they will hit the mark. Unfortunately, however, very few providers are well-versed with a wide range of methods, choosing instead to use the procrustean bed of their preferred technique. This is why it is very important for consumers in the behavioral health care marketplace to have a degree of awareness of the variety of treatment methods that are being sold.

What’s more, surprisingly, many people feel heightened psychological discomfort when they try to relax. This relaxation induced distress is referred to as paradoxical anxiety. The explanation for why paradoxical anxiety happens is uncertain, but there are a few ideas in the literature about why it occurs.

Some people are simply afraid of “losing control” while practicing relaxation and doing something inappropriate. Other people are too self-conscious and embarrassed to learn the methods from a clinician. Another explanation is what’s called hyperventilation syndrome. This happens when people over-breathe or take very shallow and frequent breaths. Others who are not self-conscious, easily embarrassed, or fear losing control or hyperventilating, just get more uptight and anxious while practicing relaxation techniques. This latter group could simply be “wired“ so that turning their minds inward during wakefulness triggers anxiety.

If we think about this phenomenon—getting anxious and uptight while relaxing—it would seem to make perfect sense. Humans are diurnal creatures that have evolved to sleep when it’s dark and be awake and alert during the daytime. Hence, during wakefulness, evolutionarily it was extremely adaptive and advantageous to focus one’s attention on the external environment, which can be fraught with all sorts of threats, risks, and dangers. So turning one’s focus and attention inward on body sensations, mental images, or other internal experiences can be very alarming for some people because they feel exposed and vulnerable to unseen or undetected dangers. Remember, our technology, civilization, and environment have changed dramatically in the past few hundred years, but biologically and psychologically we are essentially the same as our Pleistocene ancestors.

Fortunately, with the right fit between clinician and client, and with the use of a psychologically compatible method, most people can successfully learn some helpful relaxation techniques.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well.

Copyright 2022 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician. The advertisements contained in this post do not necessarily reflect the author's opinions, nor are they endorsed by him.

References

Wople, J. & Lazarus, A. (1966). Behavior Therapy Techniques: A Guide to the Treatment of Neuroses. Pergamon Press.

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