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Recognizing you are stressed and need to relax is a good step toward helping yourself. However, if finding ways to de-stress adds more stress, you may feel “stresslaxed.” This counterproductive effect can lead to a cycle of increased anxiety and worry.

Stresslaxed refers to when anxious or stressed people try to calm down by forcing themselves to take a break or unwind. Forcing relaxation can make them more anxious and worry about how well they are actually relaxing.

The clinical term for stresslaxed is relaxation-induced anxiety. If you already struggle with generalized anxiety or overthinking, you may be more prone to stresslaxing. People with this issue might also experience panic attacks and increased anxiety. Some may even become depressed because they can’t relax freely.

Is the Brain Resistant to Forced Relaxation?

In many ways, it does, especially the amygdala, which is always looking for danger.

Our brains are always on and designed to be worried. This anxiety keeps us aware of potential dangers that may threaten us. People with anxiety, worry, and ruminations have trouble with cognitive control. They find it hard to put certain thoughts on hold.

Some people need to stay busy because being calm and having space may bring up negative thoughts or memories of traumatic experiences.

Some Folks Have a Hard Time Relaxing

People find it difficult to relax due to external pressures and internal dynamics.

External pressures, like work, study, family, and other commitments, make people feel constantly “switched on” and at the beck and call of others. They may feel obligated to meet these demands and think they are not allowed any downtime or space to relax.

Work time and leisure time no longer have clear boundaries. Long ago, the workday ended at 5 pm, weekends were for rest, and stores were closed on Sundays, making home time and relaxation easier. These predictable guidelines don’t exist anymore.

Technology, access, and modern conveniences have blurred the lines between work and play, leading to “weisure,” the merging of work and leisure activities. This makes it hard to carve out relaxation time.

Internal dynamics include the drive to keep active and not giving oneself permission to slow down and relax. Some people worry that if they relax, they will be bored. Others fear that by slowing down, they will have to focus too much on their thoughts or feelings.

Are there long-term consequences of not being able to properly relax? Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, fatigue, ulcers, headaches, backaches, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.

Depression and anxiety can increase, as well as social, relational, and interpersonal difficulties. Not being able to switch off and relax can reset the nervous system to function at an overly stimulated level. Over time, this makes it harder to elicit a relaxation response.

Some people feel agitated, on edge, and anxious “from the neck down” but don’t feel mentally anxious. This indicates the need to actively reset their default activation state through intentional relaxation practice.

Here are Some Ideas to Help You Relax

Relaxation is not as passive as people think. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone and is a skill we need to practice regularly to fully benefit from it.

Often, people confuse relaxation with zoning out. While this can give our brain a break, the real goal is to downshift our nervous system. Downshifting happens through an active process designed to elicit the relaxation response, the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. This counteracts stress and returns our nervous system to balance.

You can trigger the relaxation response through visualization, muscle relaxation, massage, breathing techniques, meditation, prayer, and yoga.

Here are some tips to help you relax:

  • Set boundaries to keep work and home separate

Consider powering down technology early each night. Make self-care a priority and manage it every day.

  • Consider the Benson Relaxation Method

Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and intentionally relax all your muscles from your feet to your head. Breathe slowly for 20 minutes. This might feel challenging at first, so start with 5 minutes and gradually work your way up.

  • Think about your list of “done” items

Recall what you’ve already accomplished instead of thinking about your to-do list. This helps you stay in the moment and celebrate your finished tasks, encouraging relaxation.

  • Try a 5-minute meditation

Studies show that even 5 minutes of deep breathing, silence, and restfulness can enhance mental and physical functioning. If you can meditate longer, consider a guided meditation with an app, or simply rest, nap, or enjoy some solitude.

  • Use the 5,4,3,2,1 Technique

Find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. This helps reduce anxiety and promotes relaxation.