Has the Focus on Self-Care Only Left Us with More ‘Stresslaxation?’

stresslaxation cat

You’ve had a stressful week. Between that work drama that won’t end, your kid’s teacher who won’t stop sending home warning notes and that thing on your back you really really need to see a dermatologist about, you need a break. So, you decide you’re going to have a self-care night. You’re going to stay in, draw a hot bath (with a CBD bath bomb, perhaps?), queue up Heartstopper on Netflix and crack into that bottle of Cabernet you’ve been saving for a rainy day. Gorgeous, right? It should be. The problem is, the second you sink into the tub, your mind is flooded with thoughts of all the things you should be doing instead as well as general anxiety or dread about your lot in life. This phenomenon is called stresslaxation or, more clinically, relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA).

Stresslaxation is a new term for a fairly common feeling—the sense that, even when you’re doing things that are meant to be relaxing, your brain feels an overwhelming sense of stress, which can manifest as excessive sweating, an elevated heartbeat or a number of other physical symptoms.

Read on for more about what stresslaxation is, what it means in relationship to society’s obsession with self-care and how to deal with it if you’re one of the 30 to 50 percent of the population that has experienced it (according to the American Psychological Association).

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Clinical health psychologist Christina Luberto told NBC News back in 2012, “Someone with a fear of relaxation is able to initially relax…But once they start to feel relaxed, they begin to feel anxious as a result.” Even though you recognize the benefits of relaxation, when you actually try to do it, you’re unable to shut your brain off and lean into the calm. It’s not super surprising that experts, like researchers behind a 2019 study on the subject, have found that those with existing anxiety disorders are most prone to relaxation-induced anxiety.

Regardless, it can be difficult to reconcile these feelings of being stressed about relaxing in a society that’s obsessed with self-care. On TikTok alone, the hashtag #selfcare has 21 billion—billion with a ‘b’—views. Even PureWow has published too many self-care-related articles to count. In a world that puts self-care on the highest of pedestals, not enjoying adult coloring or journaling can contribute to those feelings of guilt. Basically, you feel bad for not being able to relax, and even worse because everyone around you seems to have self-care down pat. 

If you struggle to chill out without freaking out, read on for a few ways to counteract stresslaxation.

1. Try Different Ways to Relax

There are a million ways to practice self-care, and it’s important to remind yourself that what works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. It’s all about trial and error: Maybe the thought of spending 30 minutes meditating in silence sends you into a panic, but have you ever tried a virtual yoga class? What about rewatching Legally Blonde for the 72nd time? Instead of ruling out all forms of stress-relief as anxiety-inducing, try to give different methods a shot and hopefully you’ll find one that works for you.

2. Acknowledge Your Anxiety

If anxiety comes naturally for you, it’s easy to judge yourself for feeling stressed or anxious. But instead of beating yourself up, try to acknowledge that relaxing isn’t intuitive for everyone and accept that your feelings are valid. Dr. Angele Close, a therapist based in Chicago, tells us, “It is understandable and human to experience unsettling and even distressing thoughts, feelings and sensations...I recommend approaching your emotions in a way that validates them. Once you’ve acknowledged your feelings as credible, you can offer yourself comfort and soothing.” To acknowledge your emotions, try these methods recommended by Karyn Hall, PhD, co-author of The Power of Validation and host of the podcast 'The Emotionally Sensitive Person':

  •  Try to be more present. When anxious or other negative feelings arise, resist the urge to let your mind wander and confront your feelings rather than running from them. Hall notes that accepting emotions allows them to pass and helps build resiliency. From doing one thing at a time to using all of your senses, here are seven ways to be more present
  • Normalize your feelings. "Sometimes people who have intense emotions don’t see any of their emotional reactions as being normal," Hall writes in Psychology Today. "Everyone has emotions." While it may seem like everyone around you has it all together 24/7, that's just not true. "Check out whether what you are feeling is what most other people would experience, and validate those feelings as normal, even if you don't like experiencing them," Hall urges.
  • Don't pretend to be someone you're not. Hall notes, "In terms of self-validation, this means being your real self and not lying to yourself." Rejecting who you are and trying to force yourself to react to situations the way you think you should react is counterproductive. Remind yourself—whether that means taking a moment to reflect in a journal (or even your phone's notes app) or saying it in your head—that everyone reacts to situations differently, and rather than trying to change your reaction, focus on finding a solution to the anxiety you're feeling.

3. Talk to Someone

Yes, this can be a therapist (who can likely provide you with ways to cope with your anxiety), but it can also be the people you interact with on a daily basis. After all, relaxation-induced anxiety isn’t exactly rare, which means one of your friends, family members or colleagues is likely dealing with the same issue. By talking about it, you’ll not only become better adept at accepting your anxieties, but you might also pick up tips and tricks to help you embrace relaxation—or at least dread it less.  

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...