Why Trying to Relax Is so Hard
Welcome to Self-Mastery — a place for exploring timeless ideas to become the architect of your mind, create yourself, and do less, better.
If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.
— Amit Ray
Lately, my weeknights seem to have lost their chill. On the nights after a busy day working, and/or training, I typically spend the evening hours doing something utterly irresponsible.
I keep working. I study, I write, I don’t relax.
I know, it’s my choice to keep doing this. My failure to relinquish my efforts to be productive is my own doing. Thing is, it feels like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Would I rather be watching Line of Duty, sprawled upside down on my bed and doing nothing else? Absolutely. But does the thought of this also fill me with guilt?
I worry about looking lazy. I worry about being told I’m wasting my time on doing something unresourceful. So sitting at home and relaxing stresses me out a little.
I’m constantly reminded by friends and family how crucial it is to relax. And I tell myself this all the time; Hell, I even wrote an article on it to remind myself it’s not a bad thing. This is a very “me” problem, but I know I’m far from the only one to give myself a hard time letting go of “work”.
Even though I consider writing and working on my business to be fun, like a game, it still exhausts me, and I know I need to ‘practise’ being better at relaxing.
Upon researching it, this problem is more widespread than I thought. It even has its own name: Relaxation-Induced Anxiety (or RIA). Between 17-53 percent of all adults find relaxing to be the opposite—very stressful, by one estimate. By another, at least 15 percent of people have suffered from RIA.
It differs from being someone who finds traditionally relaxing things to be unsettling. If you’re doing yoga, playing the piano or laying in the grass, it makes you feel anxious. Yet you feel calm when, say, tidying your room. That’s not RIA. It also differs from being simply unable to ever relax.
In RIA, or our inability to not feel guilty when winding down, we are able to relax, but it’s never long before the anxiety starts to build. You briefly enter a parasympathetic (chill) state, but then your heart rate spikes, your respiratory rate increases, and you feel anxious.
For some people, the minute physical sensations you may associate with being calm—dropping your shoulders, breathing deeply—are triggers.
Since its formal identification in the 1980s, researchers have been trying to figure out how to help sufferers wind down better.
And one of the biggest breakthroughs occurred in 2012 when psychologist Christina Luberto created a diagnostic survey called the Relaxation Sensitivity Index.
Designed to help people better understand what causes their RIA, the survey asked people to rate their agreement with 21 different statements, broken down into three categories; social (e.g. “I worry that when I let my body relax, I look unattractive”), physical (e.g. “I don’t like activities like meditation because of the way they make my body feel”), and cognitive (e.g. “I don’t like to relax because it makes me feel out of control”).
That helped people clarify the issue. Further research then suggested that RIA can be a psychological defence mechanism; if something stressful happens when you’re in a blissed state of zen, the clear thinking vanishes, and the sudden spike in anxiety will feel worse than if you’d just kept your guard up the entire time.
This isn’t a healthy way to be. “People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts”, says Michelle Newman, a professor of psychology and the study’s co-author. “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.”
Luberto also once gave some advice to writer Davis Harper during a spa visit at Iceland’s Blue Lagoon. “Present-moment awareness without the intention to relax has actually been shown to increase relaxation”, she said, “It’s this paradoxical thing where when you try not to relax, you might find yourself more relaxed than when you’re intentionally trying to relax.
Trying not to relax is like doing the ‘white bears’ challenge. The more you try not to think of a polar bear, the more likely you’ll see that cursed thing in your mind every minute. Trying not to think about it keeps it cemented in your consciousness.
Mindfulness meditation is one way to get through it, where you dedicate time to focus and be in the present moment. You could do it with the help of a professional, or YouTube.
Though I prefer simple meditation, even that can be hard. Relaxing is about switching your attention to in-the-moment details. Ridding your anxiety is trying to control your worries of the future, and spending more time focused on enjoying the moment you’re in is the best way for that.
What’s on My Mind
A short excerpt I found in mymind.
“While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of—and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely by passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”
— What Great Listeners Actually Do
“Things don’t have to be perfect to live a happy, healthy life. You just need to remember that you’re starting each day with what you need. It’s about taking control, learning what you can from all mistakes, and smiling more often.”
— 5 Habits That Make Every Day Healthier, Happier and Simpler
“When making plans, think big. When making progress, think small.”
— James Clear
Favourite Thing This Week
On one eve of writing this newsletter, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched and landed its Starship SN15 during its flight test! Hard work and unrelenting consistency truly do pay off. And it’s hard to realise we’re literally watching history for space travel unfold before our eyes.
Question of the Week
If you were to continue doing everything you’re currently doing for the next five years, would you be at or near to where you want to be in life?
PS: You made it this far, all the way to the end of this weekly email. As a reward, here are some great quotes I found this week. They’re all by Terry Pratchett.
“Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.”
“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.”
“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.”
Speak again soon!