Why relaxing gives some people anxiety

Kimberly Gillan
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Image: Getty

While plenty of people are counting the days to the Christmas break, for some the idea of chilling out is actually quite scary.

Sufferers of relaxation-induced anxiety become anxious as their bodies relax, and unlike most of us who turn to exercise, massages and vacations to cure our stress, they get anxious doing traditional relaxing activities.

"Someone with a fear of relaxation is able to initially relax," explains Christina Luberto, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Cincinnati, who is examining the phenomenon.

"But once they start to feel relaxed, they begin to feel anxious as a result."

Their heart rate and breathing quicken, they feel nervous and their muscles tense, because of their fear of relaxation. Some people with relaxation-induced anxiety hate massages because the physical sensations they feel as their bodies loosen cause them to panic.

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Others worry about letting negative thoughts enter their minds if they let themselves slow down.

Luberto has developed the Relaxation Sensitivity Index, which is a questionnaire designed for use by mental health professionals to help identify sufferers of relaxation-induced anxiety so they can offer more targeted treatment.

She studied 300 college students, who were mostly 21 years old, female and Caucasian.

They were asked to rank statements such as, "I worry that when I let my body relax, I will look silly," and, "When my mind begins to wander, I worry that I might be going crazy."

The results showed 15 percent of those tested had signs of relaxation-induced anxiety, but Luberto warned that these fears could be as high as 50 percent in people with anxiety disorders.

The condition doesn't require treatment unless it is having a negative impact on an individual's life.

Normal anxiety treatment, which can include meditation and breathing exercises, is not usually effective for relaxation-induced anxiety because it can actually worsen the anxiety symptoms.

According to the NSW Anxiety Disorders Treatment Centre, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy from trained psychologists appears to be an effective treatment, where patients are taught where their anxiety came from and practical ways for treating it.

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