Paradoxically, trying to relax can actually make some people feel more anxious and stressed, not less.
Indeed, when I was extremely ill and in hospital (I was hospitalized on several occasions due to the seriousness of my condition), I was encouraged to attend certain therapeutic classes (which, because I was almost catatonic with severe clinical depression and anxiety, I most resolutely did not want to do – amongst other myriad other symptoms, I had no motivation whatsoever, together with an unshakable belief that there was no possibility at all of me getting even very slightly better (such thinking is almost universal amongst the seriously, clinically depressed).
However, I eventually agreed to attend a class in which the therapist tried to guide me (and the other patients who had attended) through a relaxation exercise. Just a minute or so into the exercises, I felt so overwhelmed by anxiety that I had to excuse myself and leave the room, seeking, instead, refuge in the smoking room where I chain-smoked innumerable cigarettes.
In fact, this such a paradoxical reaction to an attempt to relax is not especially rare – a small percentage of those with anxiety will react in a similar manner.
So, what is the cause of this paradoxical response? Several ideas have been proposed, and I briefly look at some of these below:
POSSIBLE CAUSES OF A PARADOXICAL RESPONSE TO ATTEMPTS TO RELAX :
- Trying to relax and ‘let go’ of stressful mental activity can induce in some individuals a feeling of loss of control. Related to this is the phenomenon whereby some people feel that, if they stop worrying about things, something terrible will happen and that their constant worrying is therefore somehow ‘protective’. Psychologists sometimes refer to such mistaken belief systems ‘magical thinking’.
- Fear of loss of identity – for some, being stressed (eg always busy, ‘driven’, ”keyed-up’ etc) forms part of their identity and they feel uncomfortable relinquishing this identity, fearing that if they do so others may see them as complacent, indolent etc rather than as the ‘dynamic’ individual they hope others perceive.
- Brain wave activity – becoming relaxed correlates with a shift in brainwave activity from beta-waves to alpha-waves which may cause thinking to become cloudy, hazy and foggy; some individuals find this disconcerting.
- Frustration – if we try to relax, and find we cannot immediately do so. this can lead to frustration which makes relaxation even more difficult; this can quickly develop into a vicious circle.
- Fear – similarly to the above, we may fear we will not be able to relax (by thinking things like : ‘If I don’t relax soon, I’ll go completely and irreversibly insane’ – which was the kind of thing I used to think) thus putting too much pressure on ourselves. In this way, the fear that we will not be able to relax can rapidly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Depersonalization – relaxation techniques can lead to feelings of ‘depersonalization’ in some people. Depersonalization can manifest itself as feeling of being ‘detached from one’s body‘ or as being an ‘observer of oneself.’ Many find such a sensation unpleasant.
- Derealization – ‘derealization’ can manifest itself as a feeling that ‘the world is not real’ and more like a nebulous, hazy, dreamworld. Again, many find this unpleasant. (‘Dearealiztion’ is a type of ‘dissociation.‘)
- Distraction – for some individuals, certain types of stress (such as always ‘keeping busy’) can operate as a distraction from problems and worries the person finds hard to face (in extreme cases, this may result in ‘workaholism‘). In this way, the stress/’keeping busy’ works as a psychological defense mechanism – the sudden dropping of this defense may lead to the person becoming vulnerable to being overwhelmed by floods of previously suppressed anxiety.
In response to the problem of the possible paradoxical effect a small minority of individuals may suffer as a result of trying to relax, some hypnotherapists have been trained in technique of inducing what is referred to as an ALERT TRANCE which some may find to be helpful.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).