In a high stress world, nearly everyone is trying to become more relaxed. Relaxation is often considered effective in reducing insomnia, anxiety, and even some types of depression. Feelings of relaxation are brought forth by activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for helping our body rest, digest food, and maintain biological homeostasis.
When faced with stress, our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, leading to a “fight-or-flight” response. Should the sympathetic activity increase to an abnormally high level over a prolonged period, it may cause a nervous breakdown. Most of society preaches that relaxation is “good” and that stress is “bad.” However, the key for most people is in striking a balance between alertness and relaxation to find an optimal state of arousal.
Some people actually experience increased anxiety as a result of consistent practice of relaxation exercises like meditation, progressive relaxation, and deep breathing. Therefore it is important to know yourself and whether practicing a relaxation exercise is likely to be beneficial or more harmful over the long-term. If you’re prone to relaxation-induced anxiety, you may want to unsubscribe from the popularized societal belief that more relaxation is always better.
What is relaxation-induced anxiety?
Relaxation-induced anxiety is a phenomenon that occurs when a person feels extremely uncomfortable, anxious, or agitated as a result of (actual or perceived) physical and/or psychological relaxation. The anxious response is considered to be an ironic and counterintuitive reaction due to the fact that for a majority of individuals, increased relaxation tends to reduce anxiety and increase psychological resilience to stress. However, it is important to consider that for a small percentage of individuals, experiencing deep relaxation and emotions that these relaxed states of consciousness evoke, can be problematic.
Relaxation-Induced Anxiety and Panic: List of Causes
It should be mentioned that the precise cause of relaxation-induced anxiety may differ based on the individual. For one person, too quick of a transition from a state of high-arousal to a state of low-arousal may elicit feelings of panic. For another person, feelings of depersonalization or changes in brain waves may prompt feelings of anxiety.
- Altered states of consciousness: During certain practices of relaxation, people enter states of conscious awareness that they don’t usually experience. Their brain waves tend to shift from fast-paced beta waves to alpha waves. This altered state of functioning may feel uncomfortable because it’s relatively uncharted territory and seems abnormal. Certain people freak out when they notice that they’re feeling a little bit different than usual.
- Brain activity: Depending on the type of relaxation technique you’re using, your brain activity may change. For example, visualization may increase brain activity in the visual areas, whereas a certain type of meditation may affect another area. The regional activation within the brain resulting from a particular practice could end up making you feel relaxed, but simultaneously anxious.
- Brain waves: Relaxation is associated with slowed brainwave activity. This can lead some people to experience a deficiency in activating, beta waves which results in feelings of “brain fog.” This is similar to the inattentive subtype of ADHD, leading a person to have difficulties focusing as a result of their heightened relaxation.
- Depersonalization: This is a common experience when a person is taking a medication, but can also occur even from natural relaxation techniques. If a person transitions from a stressed to a relaxed state too quickly, they may feel depersonalized or unlike their “normal” self. Depersonalization can be highly uncomfortable and exacerbate feelings of anxiety.
- Emotions: Sometimes we become more in-tune with our emotions when we relax. People who are constantly stressed often find that the stress masks certain emotions from surfacing. The stress response is almost like a thick veil of adrenaline that covers up deep positive and negative emotions. When we relax and tone down the stress, the veil of adrenaline is lifted and these emotions come into awareness; sometimes they can cause anxiety.
- Fear of homeostasis: Those who have a natural genetic inclination to feel anxious may have spent much of their lives trying to escape this homeostasis. Escaping our natural genetic programming isn’t totally possible, but it can be masked with a high amount of stimulation. When a person realizes this excess stimulation may cause health problems, they engage in relaxation exercises. They may find that the more relaxed they become, the more their anxiety increases as a result of fearing their natural homeostatic tendencies.
- Lack of stimulation: Some people have being understimulated and may have come to really like the person they had become while high on their own adrenaline. Turning down this stimulation may go against a person’s developed identity and they may not want to relax. The lack of stimulation (both mental and physical) means feeling less “hype” on the fight-or-flight response, and the resulting decrease in energy can make some people feel anxious.
- Loss of control: It’s possible that you may feel like you have no control over your state of arousal or mental functioning when you relax. The feeling that you’re “losing control” is commonly associated with relaxation-induced anxiety. Should you feel like you’re losing control, you may want to work with a therapist and/or consider accepting this as a possibility.
- Physical sensations: Some people are so far removed from feelings of relaxation (i.e. highly stressed) for such prolonged periods (i.e. years), that when an inkling of physical relaxation begins to emerge, they don’t know how to deal with it. If you find yourself becoming scared of physical relaxation, this can exacerbate the anxiety.
- Rapid transition from high stimulation: Another possibility is that a person is rapidly transitioning from a state of high stimulation to low stimulation. This may not seem problematic, but changing too quickly from stimulation to relaxation can provoke anxiety. Someone in a state of high stimulation who goes overboard with the frequency and duration of relaxation exercises is analogous to freezing your hands and putting them under a burning flame. Sure they’ll thaw (relax), but you’ll also burn them in the process, leading to discomfort (anxiety). The transitory phase should be gradual and should attempt to establish middle ground between stimulation and relaxation, not go overboard with relaxation.
- Resurfacing of memories: If you have a history of trauma, abuse, or know that you’ve repressed memories – you may want to be careful with relaxation. A relaxed state may cause repressed memories to resurface, which can also provoke emotional upheavals. These should be dealt with only when you are ready and with the help of a professional. It is common for old memories (e.g. from childhood) to cause anxiety.
- Slow thinking: During states of relaxation, you may feel slow-witted, less socially adept, introverted, and may lose some of your external focus. You may feel as if your cognitive performance has temporarily declined or experienced a major setback. It is possible that this has actually occurred due to slowing of the brain waves. Should any of these experiences occur, they may result in anxiety.
- Social perception: Some people actually fear that if they appear relaxed to others, they’ll look unattractive or more like a pushover. While there is some truth to the idea that nonverbal body language does communicate a particular image to others, appearing relaxed can be a good thing. If you think that others will think you’re lazy or incompetent, you may just need a perspective change.
What relaxation techniques may cause anxiety or panic?
Any relaxation technique that reduces physical and psychological arousal is capable of provoking anxiety. Below is a list of common relaxation exercises that can cause a person to become increasingly anxious.
- Brainwave entrainment: While brainwave entrainment can be utilized to help a person relax, some people end up hating how they feel in a particular “state.” Those that experiment with frequencies of brain waves in the lower ranges (e.g. theta waves) may dislike how they feel in these states. One of the dangers of brainwave entrainment is feeling “trapped” in a particular state of consciousness, which can result in high-level anxiety (or panic).
- Deep breathing: Although deep breathing is unlikely to cause a person more anxiety, the relaxation that accompanies consistent practice of deep breathing may be problematic. Toning down activity in the sympathetic nervous system may lead to an overly dominant parasympathetic nervous system, leading to us feeling too unfocused.
- Drugs: Using illicit drugs like marijuana may provoke feelings of intense anxiety. Generally people experience the anxiety for a couple of reasons including: paranoia and/or depersonalization. Although they may feel relaxed as a result of the drug’s effect, the relaxation may send them for an anxious tailspin. Keep in mind that many CNS depressant drugs and even alcohol may cause some people to become more anxious as a result of the relaxation.
- Hypnosis: Whether you’re visiting a professional hypnotherapist or are utilizing self-hypnosis recordings, sometimes you may find the deep relaxation uncomfortable. The relaxed state may become so deep that it provokes anxiety.
- Medications: There are many pharmaceutical medications that can make us become increasingly relaxed, but for many, the relaxation is uncomfortable. Various psychotropic medications such as: antidepressants, antipsychotics, and benzodiazepines tweak our neurochemistry to elicit feelings of relaxation. For some, the relaxation is excessive or uncomfortable to the point that it becomes a source of anxiety. Understand that even analgesic drugs like opioids and other CNS depressants may also be a culprit.
- Meditation: There are known cases when meditation worsens anxiety as a result of increased relaxation. It is known that different types of meditation affect the brain in unique ways. Therefore a particular meditation practice may not mesh well with your individualized biochemistry. You may want to try a different type of meditation to combat the anxiety-provoking relaxation such as Vajrayana – which is known to increase arousal.
- Neurofeedback: While many neurofeedback protocols can increase relaxation, all it takes is the wrong up-training or down-training of brain waves in a particular area to cause anxiety. A person may start to notice more relaxation, but may become anxious during the transitory phase. An experienced neurofeedback practitioner should be able to fix this and realize that ideal brainwave protocols should be customized to fit the individual.
- Visualization: Many people practice visualization to enhance their focus and decrease arousal. While visualizing doesn’t always tend to induce relaxation, many people visualize specifically to relax. When the feeling of relaxation emerges, some people dislike the experience.
- Yoga: Excessive practicing of yoga can certainly increase feelings of calmness, but not always inner peace. For those who are prone to relaxation-induced anxiety, the calmness may feel extremely disconcerting.
How to cope with relaxation-induced anxiety…
There are a few ways by which you can cope with the relaxation-induced anxiety. The most obvious way to deal with the anxiety is to stop practicing consistent relaxation if it’s amplifying the feelings of anxiousness.
1. Stop relaxing
For most people it’s common sense to stop an activity that’s making them feel worse. If you continuously feel more anxious following the practice of meditation, deep breathing, or another relaxation technique, stop doing it. Accept the fact that relaxation practices can be beneficial for some people for the reduction of anxiety, but they aren’t meant for everyone. Humans didn’t evolve practicing relaxation all the time, and you may not need to either.
2. Modify the relaxation exercise
A second option you have is to modify the relaxation exercise that you’re practicing. It can be modified by scaling back on the duration (time) and frequency of practice each day. If you spent 20 minutes doing self-hypnosis on a daily basis 3x per day, you may want to scale back to just one session of 5 to 10 minutes and see how you feel.
Another option you have is to simply try a different relaxation technique and determine whether you respond better. If you were previously practicing visualization, you may want to try progressive relaxation instead. Different relaxation techniques can result in unique emotional responses based on the technique.
3. Talk about it
Another way to deal with the anxiety you’ve experienced as a result of relaxation is to talk about it. Talk with friends and/or family members about how you’re feeling and your experience. Sometimes simply talking about how uncomfortable you feel with the relaxation can be a good way to cope with it and shift your focus.
A knowledgeable psychologist or psychotherapist should also be able to help you cope with this phenomenon. Do not be afraid to enroll in psychotherapy and talk to someone about how you’re feeling. You may want to show them the NCBI documentation of relaxation-induced anxiety and tell them that it’s what you’re experiencing as well. They may offer some strategies to help you cope.
Another common sense way to deal with the increase in relaxation is to combat it with stimulation. Throw a few stimulants at your brain and see if the anxiety from “relaxation” persists. I’d recommend starting with something light such as a cup of green tea, then maybe working your way up to black tea and/or coffee. All of these beverages are relatively healthy, and may be just what you need to get out of a mental fog.
If you find those beverages ineffective in counteracting the effects of relaxation, you may want to try a more potent psychostimulant medication or eugeroic. These will require visiting a psychiatrist, taking a cognitive assessment, and discussing that your mental-slowness is the culprit for your anxiety. Many people find that using Adderall for anxiety works extremely well due to the fact that it minimizes mental relaxation/haze/inattentiveness, and increases stimulation, focus, and arousal.
5. Push through it
Although the relaxation-induced anxiety be uncomfortable, sometimes it is worth pushing through. If the relaxation exercise is helping change your brain and body for the better, an adjustment may be taking place within your consciousness each time you relax. This adjustment phase may be uncomfortable, but is akin to a train traveling through a tunnel.
You may not yet see the light at the end of the tunnel, but pushing through it will eventually take you directly to the light. While this is just an analogy, many people experience anxiety from relaxation and emotional upheavals and discontinue their relaxation. In some cases, discontinuing a relaxation exercise may be the best option, but for others, pushing through it leads to better long-term outcomes.
Many people think that their relaxation-induced anxiety is always a bad thing and that something needs to be fixed. In some cases, simply accepting the anxiety and being mindful that although it may be uncomfortable, you can cope with it. The tendency for those who experience relaxation-induced anxiety is to panic, and dwell on some particular aspect of the relaxation such as: foggy thinking, slower wit, or feeling spacey.
While you may not want to feel like a space-cadet or like you can’t hold your own in a social situation, sometimes it’s better to accept the relaxation. Accepting your thoughts and feelings in regards to the relaxation can be a challenge. As soon as you accept your relaxation experience and observe it without judgment, the anxiety will likely subside.
Have you ever experienced relaxation-induced anxiety?
I’ve personally experienced relaxation-induced anxiety many times over the years. I’ve found that it generally subsides when the activity that you’re using to relax is discontinued. I have also noticed that when the feelings of discomfort emerge, pushing through them sometimes works well, but increasing arousal may also be effective.
When overcoming PTSD and adrenaline addiction, I had to face the transition from a state of high arousal to one of lower arousal. This meant accepting that I was going to lose my quick-wit and cognitive sharpness in exchange for a calmer demeanor and healthier state of physical functioning. The “loss of control” over how I was functioning and entering into a new territory of consciousness was a scary experience, but was necessary for improving my health.
I now realized that relaxation (low arousal) and stimulation (high arousal) each have pros and cons. Neither should be taken to an extreme, rather a balance should be attained somewhere in the middle ground. If you’ve dealt with anxiety as a result of excessive relaxation or transitioning to a relaxed state, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below.