When Relaxation Makes You Anxious

Some people are just unable to unwind. Anxiety creeps into moments of relaxation. General causes of this relaxation-induced anxiety is still unknown, in this article we explore the phenomenon and propose different techniques to counteract it.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

After a long and stressful day, you set aside some time to sit and meditate. Your breathing deepens and your muscles relax, as you feel the tensions of the day melting away. Suddenly, your body tightens. Waves of panic wash over you in a storm of anxiety, and the feelings of relaxation vanish. You come out of the meditation more stressed than you were beforehand. If this sounds familiar, then you might have suffered from relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA). Below we’ll explore what RIA is, how it feels, and several ways to deal with this type of anxiety.

What Is Relaxation-Induced Anxiety?

RIA is the unfortunate inability to unwind during conventionally relaxing activities (like meditating, hanging out with friends or watching TV), ultimately leading to heightened feelings of stress and agitation. For people experiencing RIA, the physical and mental sensations of relaxation (like a reduction in heart rate and muscle tension) counter-intuitively spur on more feelings of anxiety.

RIA’s not a recognised mental health issue, but rather is one of the many ways that clinical anxiety can manifest. Research suggests that around 15% of people with chronic anxiety experience symptoms of RIA. Which, of course, can be extremely frustrating; the activity that you hope can bring some relief to your life can end up making things worse.

RIA Affects More People Than You Think

If you sometimes have trouble meditating, or find yourself unable to sit down and unwind, no matter what you do, then you are certainly not alone. Dr. Christina Luberto and her colleagues revisited the phenomenon, as research into RIA has been sparse since the 1980’s—when the term originally popped up in the literature.

Luberto concluded that 15% might be a very conservative estimate—their research estimates that RIA affects between 17-53% of the chronically anxious population. On top of this, they’ve found that RIA is prevalent even if you don’t suffer from clinical anxiety.

Shocked by the amount of people that are potentially affected by RIA, Luberto sought to properly classify and identify the source of the problem. In 2012, Luberto developed the Relaxation Sensitivity Index, a questionnaire designed to probe exactly what part of an activity can trigger anxious thoughts and feelings. The index is made up of statements like:

  • “I don’t like to relax because it makes me feel out of control”
  • “It scares me when my body feels relaxed”
  • “I avoid slowing down and relaxing so that I don’t have to think about certain things”

Based on this index, RIA is characterised by resisting thoughts and feelings that are generally associated with being relaxed. These thoughts and feelings—like your heart rate slowing down and your mind wandering—are then met with classic symptoms of anxiety.

So this then begs the question: how can we fight feelings of anxiety if relaxing activities just make the feeling worse?

Read more: Another anxiety-related phenomenon affecting many people’s lives is morning anxiety. Psychotherapist Andrea Wachter outlines two scenarios of dealing with anxiety in the morning.

Techniques To Reduce Relaxation-Induced Anxiety

 Although the general cause of RIA is still unknown, more holistic research into mind-body interventions are growing. With this comes more ideas that can help win the battle against RIA. Below we’ll explore a few techniques that can be useful to settle your mind and body, and finally unwind in a positive way.

1. Ground Yourself

One theory poses that RIA is characterised by intrusive and negative thoughts that are unrelated to the current activity. This leads to one becoming preoccupied with the distracting thoughts, which impedes the ability to relax. Take this as an example:

You’re settling down to watch your favourite programme. Suddenly a thought pops into your head: “My gas bill’s due tomorrow”. This causes your stomach to drop as it leads to another thought: “What if I can’t make my rent this month?” Your mind has now been hijacked by worrisome thoughts, which steers your attention away from the programme. The negative thoughts snowball, and your body responds with physical symptoms of anxiety. You’re now halfway through the programme, but your body and mind are inconceivably stressed.

Fortunately, there may be a way to counteract these thoughts. A common way to allow your mind to return to the present—to the relaxing activity you want to be involved with—is to ground yourself. This means that you bring awareness to the moment and are conscious of your surroundings.

A common technique is the 54321 grounding method, which encourages you to tap into your primary senses. The method is as follows:

  • Name 5 things you see around you
  • Name 4 things you can touch
  • Name 3 things you can hear
  • Name 2 things you can smell
  • Name 1 thing you can taste

By grounding yourself with this method, you can prevent yourself getting swept up in anxious thoughts, which can help your mind remain focussed on the present and relaxing moments at hand. You can find two guided audio versions of this exercise in our playlist below.

Read more: In this article, we explore several breathing techniques for anxiety and delve deep into the reasons why these simple exercises can be so powerful.

2. Exercise Loving-Kindness

Another reason why RIA may be more prevalent nowadays could stem from perceived social pressures. An accelerated lifestyle dominates Western society; we are particularly goal-driven, highly individualistic, and always seek to achieve. With this comes the fear of being judged as lazy if we seek time to unwind, which brings about anxious thoughts and sensations. However, we may not be fully aware of this. Many of these negative self evaluations stem from unconscious thoughts, which makes it difficult for us to understand why we may feel so anxious.

To reverse this negative evaluation, it may be useful to try and practice loving-kindness towards yourself. Loving-kindness, or metta bhavana, allows you to cultivate a greater sense of forgiveness and compassion. Consciously practising loving kindness to yourself may be the antidote to unconscious negative self-judgements.

To develop loving kindness, try these steps: 

  1. Carve out a few minutes of the day when you won’t be disturbed, and sit in a peaceful setting.
  2. Imagine yourself basking in warmth and wellness—this could be a memory that  resonates with you, or it could simply be imaging the warmth of the sun on your body.
  3. Repeat a mantra—a positive recurring phrase—to yourself. This could be anything, but a common one is “May I be well, may I be happy.”
  4. Let this feeling envelop you, and if your mind wanders, just slowly steer it back towards the sensation of warmth and wellness.

At first, this may be difficult. Below we’ll explore why it’s necessary to go as slow as possible with this technique. But if you form a daily practice, you’re on the path to cultivating more self-compassion that can help you in the fight against RIA.

We have handpicked some guided exercises that can be helpful to counteract relaxation-induced anxiety. Discover two guided 54321-exercises, a loving-kindness meditation for anxiety as well as other SOS practices:

  1. Grounding Exercise For Panic & Anxiety (54321 Exercise) Elizabeth Tyrpak 3:50
  2. Grounding Into The Present (54321 Exercise) Kaylee Misener 5:59
  3. Metta Meditation for Anxiety & Resentment Rachelle Tersigni 21:13
  4. SOS for Anxiety and Overwhelm: 4-7-8 Breathing Technique Melissa Bennett 8:00
  5. SOS Anxiety Release Dr. Irene Cop 4:22
  6. Three Part Breath Katia Tallarico 10:00

3. Go Slow And Relax For Short Periods Of Time

Another theory explains that relaxation-induced anxiety is caused by an inability to “let go”. People suffering from RIA strongly associate the feelings that accompany relaxation with a lack of control. This lack of control then initiates a stress response causing them to experience anxiety.

To counteract these feelings of helplessness, you may consider doing relaxing activities in much smaller chunks. For example, people that experience RIA during meditation often practice for long periods at a time, which can be counterintuitive. Rather than trying to meditate for as long as possible, try to do 5-10 minutes at a time. Then, you may experience the initial relaxing feelings, and if anxiety kicks in, you simply stop.

By gently exposing yourself to a relaxing activity like meditation, you slowly become used to the physical and psychological sensations of relaxation, allowing you to feel more and more comfortable in those activities.

Read more: Explore various one-minute meditations that you can easily apply to your day and hep to expand your practice.

Whatever Works For You

Ultimately, it’s down to you how you choose to counteract RIA. However, these techniques revolve around one focal ability—mindfulness.

Adopting mindfulness into your everyday, whether on or off the cushion, is a step closer to successfully managing RIA. By cultivating an acute sense of awareness of your thoughts, feelings and sensations, you are developing the ability to stop relaxation-induced anxiety in its tracks and start savouring the things that make life so enjoyable.

Discover our large free collection of meditation for anxiety that can help to focus on staying in the present moment and seeing a situation for what it is.

Meditation. Free.