If Trying To Relax Makes You Anxious, There’s A Scientific Reason For That

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Relaxation exercises like guided meditations and visualizations are great for so many people. Sometimes, though, you might feel like the odd one out because they might have the opposite effect on you. If trying to relax makes you anxious, rest assured you're not alone. A new study suggests people with anxiety are less likely to benefit from relaxation exercises for that precise reason.

The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, found that people who tend to be heavily impacted by negative emotional shifts in their everyday lives are less likely to actually be helped by relaxation training. In fact, for many people who are predisposed to experiencing anxiety, trying to relax might not simply be ineffective. The study found that relaxation-induced anxiety can lead to a sharp increase in people's anxiety levels precisely because they are trying to relax.

Of the 96 college students who participated in the study, about a third were diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, another third had major depressive disorder, and the final third had neither of these diagnoses. The researchers first tested the participants' resilience to recovering from upsetting images by exposing them to videos meant to induce fear or sadness. Then, all of the participants were led through a series of relaxation sessions to see how effectively the relaxation could help them soothe their difficult feelings.

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The participants took surveys at each step of the process, so researchers could gain a clearer understanding of what was inducing anxiety and agitation in the participants. Based on this data, the study concluded that participants without depression or anxiety were soothed by relaxation sessions led by researchers. However, people with generalized anxiety disorder were more likely to be even more anxious immediately after they tried to relax. Similar trends were found for people with major depression disorder, even though the effect wasn't as strong.

It's worth noting that the sample size of this study wasn't very large at less than 100 people, so these results should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it's interesting research into a more-common-than-you'd-think phenomenon.

The researchers posited that the common clinical emphasis on treating people with anxiety by emphasizing relaxation techniques may not in fact be as helpful as one might think. If attempts to relax actually makes people with anxiety feel more anxious, the study asked, might there not be more effective and less potentially harmful treatments out there?

One key to exploring this question might be efforts to ensure that treatment plants give attention to the underlying causes of anxiety, rather than the accumulation of their symptoms. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice, accurately diagnosing the underlying causes of people's anxiety is vital when doctors and psychotherapists are trying to figure out how to successfully treat combat veterans with anxiety. Without addressing those underlying issues, treatment becomes increasingly difficult and even impossible, the study said.

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This is especially important, because according to a 2017 study published in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry, people's sensitivity to anxiety has a huge impact on how effectively they can be treated for trauma-related disorders. For example, the study found that the more sensitive someone is to anxiety in a general sense, the more anxiety-specific treatment they'll need when being assessed and treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.

All of this means that the better you know yourself and what tends to calm you down, the better you can work with yourself and a mental health professional to create a treatment plan that works for you. So if trying to relax actually makes you more anxious, just remember that you're not alone, and you're allowed to figure out what treatments and techniques work better for you. Because you deserve an effective way to address your own anxiety, even if what helps you doesn't look like the same relaxation and meditation techniques that seem to work for other people.