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Chilling out no help for those with relaxation-induced anxiety

People with relaxation-induced anxiety get stressed out when they begin to unwind, experts say.
People with relaxation-induced anxiety get stressed out when they begin to unwind, experts say.Getty Images Stock

You may be counting the days until you get your holiday R & R, but for some people, rest and relaxation is a scary thing. They freak out while chilling out.

The phenomenon, known as relaxation-induced anxiety, happens when people become anxious as a result of being relaxed. While it sounds contradictory, activities such as exercise, listening to music, or taking a vacation trigger anxious feelings.

"Someone with a fear of relaxation is able to initially relax," says Christina Luberto, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Cincinnati, who has developed a questionnaire, known as the Relaxation Sensitivity Index, to examine this fear. "But once they start to feel relaxed, they begin to feel anxious as a result."

Instead of enjoying a bit of down time, their heart rate increases, their breathing speeds up, their muscles tense and they feel nervous and worried. Relaxing activities don't truly unwind them but rather make them feel wound up.

Relaxation-induced anxiety is a fear of relaxation itself or an increased fear that occurs not long after relaxation is achieved, explains Luberto.

For example, people with this fear may dislike getting a massage because they're frightened by the physical sensations it creates when tension gets released from their muscles and their neck and shoulders loosen up.

Or some might be scared of the mental aspects of chilling out, such as the unwanted thoughts that enter their heads when their minds quiet down. Still others may be afraid of the social consequences of doing relaxing activities, such as appearing lazy, feeling a loss of control, or worrying they're not relaxing "correctly."

Luberto says relaxation-induced fears are relatively common based on a study involving 300 college students, most of whom were 21 years old, female and Caucasian.

Participants in the study were asked to rank on a scale of 0 to 5 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." Luberto's preliminary findings revealed that about 15 percent of those tested experienced relaxation-induced anxiety.

While that number reflects the frequency of these fears in a group of relatively healthy young adults, Luberto says relaxation-induced fears may run as high as 50 percent among people with anxiety disorders. And there's not yet information on its frequency among individuals with other types of mood disorders or mental health problems. 

Luberto is quick to point out that relaxation-induced anxiety isn't a diagnosis, and it doesn't necessarily require treatment unless this fear is interfering with a person's life.

But since relaxation techniques are a common treatment for anxiety disorders, this would obviously be problematic for people with a fear of relaxation. You can't suggest deep breathing exercises or meditation as a remedy for anxiety if these techniques make the person feel more nervous, uncomfortable, and worried while doing them.

Luberto developed her questionnaire as a tool for mental health professionals to use when working with anxiety patients. It can help identify those who are afraid of relaxation and might need a different treatment option to successfully overcome this fear.