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This is why trying to relax causes even more anxiety, according to experts

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Hollie Richardson
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Why can't I relax?

New research looks into why anxious people find it so hard to relax, and it’s definitely worth checking out if you struggle to switch off. 

Most of us have experienced anxiety at some point in our lives, and know how much it sucks. Whether it’s that looming fear of failing at work or those intense feelings in a nerve-wracking situation, anxiety can be seriously debilitating. And for many people, it’s an ongoing problem. 

In fact, research by Anxiety UK shows that one in ten people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some point in their life. The organisation also reports that some three million people currently live with an anxiety disorder, ranging from panic attacks and panic disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just switch off? And yet, shaking off those anxious feelings, even if just for a few moments, can sometimes feel impossible. New research into this has given an insight into why some people just feel even more anxious when they try to relax. 

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The study, carried out by Penn State research and published in Journal of Affective Disorders, suggests that people with anxiety may actively resist relaxation and continue worrying to avoid a large jump in anxiety if something bad does happen. 

It found that people who were more sensitive to shifts in negative emotion (quickly moving from a relaxed state to one of fear) were more likely to feel anxious while being led through relaxation exercises.

This has been coined “relaxation-induced anxiety”. 

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“People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts,” Michelle Newman, professor of psychology said.

“The more you do it, the more you realise you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”

Woman can't get to sleep
Relaxation-induced anxiety might explain why some people just can't switch off.

Explaining why relaxation treatments designed to help people feel better can potentially cause more anxiety, Hanjoo Kim, a graduate student in psychology said: “People who are more vulnerable to relaxation-induced anxiety are often the ones with anxiety disorders who may need relaxation more than others.

“And of course, these relaxation techniques were meant to help, not make someone more anxious. Our findings will hopefully serve as a cornerstone for providing better care for these populations.”

So, what exactly is the cause of this way of thinking? Newman has a theory. 

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“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,” Newman said. 

“This isn’t actually helpful and just makes you more miserable. But, because most of the things we worry about don’t end up happening, what’s reinforced in the brain is, ‘I worried and it didn’t happen so I should continue worrying.’”

Kim explained how the research could help clinicians provide better care for people with anxiety, saying: “Measuring relaxation-induced anxiety and implementing exposure techniques targeting the desensitisation of negative contrast sensitivity may help patients reduce this anxiety.

“Also, it would be important to examine relaxation-induced anxiety in other disorders, such as panic disorder and persistent mild depression.”

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Although more research into how this can be treated needs to be done, it’s even more reason to allow yourself the space to switch off.

Images: Getty

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…

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