Does Relaxing Make You Anxious? Here's Why, According To New Research
Meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga are supposed to relax your muscles, slow your breathing, and bring you back to a cushy state of calm—right?
According to a new study, not always. In fact, for some of us, trying to relax can have the exact opposite effect. It's a phenomenon called relaxation-induced anxiety, and researchers have known about it for years without being able to explain why it occurs. But now, new research from scientists at Penn State University might hold the answer.
What is relaxation-induced anxiety—and why does it occur?
Have you ever sat down to meditate, only to feel a swell of anxiety and fear? If you have, you're not alone, and you've probably been dealing with relaxation-induced anxiety. As Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., integrative medicine doctor and certified yoga instructor, explains, "Most people actually do well with relaxation therapy, and their symptoms improve. However, there is an extreme group of people who this may not work well on as the study cites," she says.
So why does it happen? It could be something called "contrast avoidance," a theory one of the authors on the study, Michelle Newman, developed in 2011. As she explains it, "The theory revolves around the idea that people may make themselves anxious intentionally, as a way to avoid the letdown they might get if something bad were to happen."
In other words, you could be using worry as a sort of insurance policy or "pay in advance" policy against bad things that might occur. In their recent paper, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the authors explain that "the contrast avoidance model postulates that individuals with generalized anxiety disorder [...] fear a sharp spike in negative emotion, and thus prefer to worry to maintain their negative affect, rather than being in a more euthymic state, such as relaxation."
What does the research say about relaxation-induced anxiety?
For this most recent study, the research team studied 96 college students; 32 had a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), 34 had major depressive disorder (MDD), and 30 had no disorder at all and functioned as the control group. First, the participants completed relaxation exercises and then, immediately after, watched videos that were meant to stoke feelings of fear or sadness. They were then given questionnaires to evaluate their emotional state. In the next phase, the participants completed relaxation exercises and then completed a questionnaire that asked about the level of anxiety they experienced during the exercise.
The data showed that people with GAD were more sensitive to emotional shifts in the first half of the study and that they felt more anxiety while trying to relax. As another author of the study, Hanjoo Kim, explained, "People who are more vulnerable to relaxation-induced anxiety are often the ones with anxiety disorders who may need relaxation more than others." The same effect was observed in the participants with MDD, but it was less striking.
Gandhi, who has worked with many patients who suffer from GAD and MDD, says she's witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. "They have a different chemical and genetic makeup, which makes them more prone to these symptoms," she explains of trying to treat this group. "This group of people takes 'worrying' to the extreme," she continues.
What can you do about relaxation-induced anxiety?
According to Newman, allowing yourself to simply feel anxiety is one option. "People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it's actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts," she said. Kim suggests that "measuring relaxation-induced anxiety and implementing exposure techniques targeting the desensitization of negative contrast sensitivity may help patients reduce this anxiety." Essentially, we need more research that will reveal how we can retrain the brain to no longer use contrast avoidance as a coping mechanism for anxiety.
Finally, Gandhi suggests leaning on the long-held belief that practice makes perfect. "Sometimes meditation or 'relaxation' techniques can make you anxious, but it helps to be consistent and give it time," she said. "It takes 21 days to form any habit so sticking to it goes a long way," she continued.
If you're not sure where to start, try this simple breathing exercise to calm your mind and body.
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