Stresslaxation: when trying to relax stresses you out more…

Aug 31, 2022

4 mins

Stresslaxation: when trying to relax stresses you out more…
Aurélie Cerffond

Journaliste @Welcome to the jungle

When people feel stressed, they often shift their focus to making that feeling go away. Breathing exercises, yoga poses, self-soothing mantras, an entire carton of ice cream accompanied by a bottle of wine — there are plethora of methods people use to try to reclaim a sense of calm and control. However, a few extra gulps of oxygen (and/or Chablis) are not always going to cut it. Sometimes, within the chaotic hum-drum of daily life, and between the myriad layers of professional and personal responsibilities that pile up, repeated unsuccessful attempts at relaxing can lead to something else entirely… Stresslaxation: the stress of trying to relax or being unable to relax.

Despite the obvious irony, a 2016 study by the American Psychological Association titled, ‘Relaxation-induced anxiety: Paradoxical anxiety enhancement due to relaxation training,’ showed that 30 to 50% of people feel anxiety when trying to relax.

A vicious cycle then ensues, which can look like:

  • A situation causes you a spike in stress
  • The stress builds up, so you tell yourself to relax
  • You’re unable to do so
  • You get more stressed, possibly experiencing symptoms like sweating and an increased heart rate
  • Your thoughts get even more negative, and in the most severe cases, you spiral into a full-blown panic attack.

If this sounds like you, relax!

Jokes. But the plus side is, you’re not alone. Understanding what’s going on and finding methods that actually help are the best way forward.

Unlike mosquitos, stress can actually serve a purpose.

There is a biological purpose to stress, as Lyon-based career coach and psychologist Cécile Pichon would like us to remember. “The primary function of stress is to make us react to danger. In today’s society, it is more likely to push our ability to ensure that we can cope with high-stakes situations,” she says. “What we are talking about with the stress of relaxation is less stress than anxiety. We are anticipating a threat—that is to say that we are worried about a situation that might happen.”

Say, for example, you’re preparing for a presentation that could have a large impact on your career. It’s easy to imagine being apprehensive about speaking in public—afraid of not finding the right words or of being asked trick questions…The impending challenge is unnerving, so the stress you may feel in this situation is quite normal; expected, even.

What isn’t helpful though, is if you’re unable to sit with your [totally normal and acceptable] jitters, and the stress festers, moving from the sidelines to the center stage of your day. Suddenly you’re not thinking about your speech, you’re imagining turning red, stammering, and looking ridiculous on stage. Now you’re stressed about stress. Says Pichon: “We find ourselves stressing about both the primary cause (the situation at hand), but also about what the result of it could be. And this is problematic because it cuts us off from our primary stress, which actually has its virtues.”

The philosophy of perpetual zen-ness is largely to blame.

“I really need to destress!” Pichon hears from her patients all the time. “My patients put enormous pressure on themselves to relax, which is completely paradoxical,” she says. “And of course, it’s counterproductive: they try to control their emotions when, on the contrary, they need to let go.” She believes the blame can be placed on the current prevailing ideas of personal development that push you to be zen in all circumstances and suggest If you’re stressed, you’re doing something wrong or need to quickly mend the situation.

“It’s perfectly normal to be stressed when dealing with a big deadline. There is no point in trying to take away all the bad feelings in these situations. People would have us believe that it’s possible to make the negative emotions just go away,” she says. “Well, that’s impossible. We’re all going to go through difficult times, and that’s okay. On the contrary, [this type of stress] should be normalized.”

However, Pichon emphasizes that trying to fight a negative emotion without trying to understand it is not the right strategy. “Our emotions always have something to tell us. It is important to accept them and to try to analyze them. Trying to be happy and relaxed all the time is delusional. On the contrary, life is about constanting finding balance.”

Nip it in the bud.

While feeling stressed and other negative emotions at certain times in your life is completely normal, Pichon warns it becomes problematic when it takes up too much space, when the stress gets out of proportion, or when it lingers. If life starts feeling unmanageable, it may be time to seek out professional help to get yourself back in alignment.

The solutions for coping

Since trying to eliminate all the bad mojo with essential oils and a couple of sun salutations is most likely not going to cut it, Pichon suggests a three-step approach to help stave off stress.

  1. Accept the emotion, even if it’s negative. Listen to the need behind your emotion; it’s telling you something!

  2. Take action when you can. This means doing everything you can to minimize any uncertainty associated with the stressful situation. For example, if you’re afraid of forgetting something in the morning, make a to-do list before going to bed the night before. When you have control, take action; when you don’t, do your best to make peace with it.

  3. Lean into the things that make you feel good. This solution has nothing to do with the outside world. What sparks joy in your life? Everyone is different and has their own tricks for letting go. For some, it might be going for a run; for others, it could be talking to a friend or colleague, meditating, cooking, singing etc.. Just make sure whatever you do, you’re doing it for your own overall wellness, and not as part of a pressure to relax!

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

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