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Why Relaxing Can Feel Difficult

A day off can sometimes be less relaxing than you hoped.

Key points

  • Many people report that stress affects their productivity in the workplace.
  • The nervous system reacts quickly to stress and takes time to resolve it, which affects relaxation efficacy.
  • Having a specific ideal of relaxation or seeing it as an earned commodity destroy its value.

It’s the day you’ve been waiting for: your day off. You sleep in, make yourself a cup of coffee, put your feet up, and wait for the wash of relief to take over.

But after a few minutes, you notice that your mind is still racing about that thing you’ve been meaning to get done. A few more minutes go by and you feel yourself getting antsy to get up and do something. Guilt begins to wash over you as you look at the time, realize it is almost noon, and think about how you’ve gotten none of your chores done. Then the anxiety comes as you realize that nearly half of your precious day off is already gone.

Sound familiar? Of course it does.

Some days, relaxing feels like you're battling the voice in your head telling you that you should be doing something productive or you didn’t earn that extra two hours of sleep you just got. It’s not that you want to be working or doing chores, per se, but lying on the couch doesn’t feel as gratifying as you wanted it to be.

Why does relaxing sometimes feel so hard? What makes it wondrous on some days and torturously out-of-reach on others?

Productivity and Stress

It is no secret that most people experience stress-related anxiety. A study conducted in 2006 by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America showed that 40% of Americans self-reported experiencing “persistent stress or excessive anxiety in their daily lives,” a number that is presumably much higher more than a decade later. Additionally, 56% of these individuals said that their anxiety affects their workplace performance.

The numbers come as no surprise and, reflecting self-reports, are likely an understatement when it comes to portraying just how much stress and productivity expectations go hand-in-hand in our lives. There are countless studies like this one that research how stress affects our productivity, but there are considerably fewer studies on how productivity affects our stress.

On one hand, the reason seems obvious: we don’t need research on how productivity affects stress because it’s already clear why work and life stress us out. On the other hand, there is no clear explanation as to why decreasing productivity wouldn’t directly correlate to decreasing stress. Relaxation is likely the key factor missing here.

Source: Geralt/Pixabay

The Relaxed Brain

Our autonomic nervous system encompasses what are known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is often called the “fight-or-flight” system, since it is engaged when we are in stressful situations. The parasympathetic nervous system, meanwhile, is responsible for down-regulating our system after it has been activated by stress, excitement, or activity, and is often called the “rest-and-digest” system. While the sympathetic nervous system evolved to act instantaneously, the parasympathetic nervous system engages more slowly. This means that it can take a bit of time for stress to resolve and its physiologic footprints to completely disappear from our system.

Common relaxation methods like meditation and breathing techniques can facilitate activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is why they are so often suggested for stress relief.

Relaxation doesn’t have to involve any sort of mindfulness practices or breathing exercises. However, don’t expect your stress to disappear the moment you cozy up on the couch. Our brains are hard-wired to recover by relaxing, but they don’t always catch up right away.

Reframing Relaxation

Now more than ever, our society expects constant productivity. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem by forcing many to turn their homes into offices and essentially remove the divide between work and home life. It is only natural, therefore, that relaxing when you could be doing something productive feels wrong.

The pressure to always be productive can take away from the experience of relaxing. So can the belief that relaxation is something that is earned, like a reward at the end of a long week. Not only does this commodify something that our body needs to stay healthy but it also undermines its effectiveness. By limiting your downtime to something that you only deserve after completing a certain amount of work or a certain number of chores, you might find that you will never be giving yourself enough breaks and feel restless when you finally allow yourself to slow down.

Source: Alpeva232/Pixabay

Another factor that can make relaxation feel forced or disappointing is having preconceived notions of what relaxation should be. Especially in the age of social media, we can start believing that time off must involve luxurious spa days or expensive vacations. Spending a three-day break from school or work to stay in bed all day can feel like a “waste” of downtime by comparison, leaving us feeling underwhelmed compared to an imagined weekend of indulgence.

It's countereffective to define a “right” way to spend time relaxing. Start listening to what your mind and body want out of your time off and you might find the break more enjoyable as a result.

Of course, there is always finding a healthy mix of productivity and relaxation. If you find that after two days of lounging, you are itching to reorganize your bathroom, maybe it’s time to do just that. Forcing relaxation when you feel physically and mentally equipped to be active is no more helpful than forcing yourself to work through exhaustion.

Removing any expectations we have for relaxation may be the key to truly enjoying our downtime. By reframing our mindset to exclude any productivity thresholds for earning a day off or any concepts of what relaxation should look like, relaxing can become what it is truly meant to be: a break from demands.

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