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  • Dr. Terri Bacow

Is Anxiety Making It Hard for You to Relax? Try This Trick.

Engage in enjoyable activities that occupy you, but don't overdo it.

The other day, I was attempting to relax on a float in a swimming pool on a sunny, warm Saturday afternoon. Yet, I found myself feeling both antsy and uneasy. My spouse, in contrast, who was floating a few feet away, appeared completely blissed out.

If you can relate to this story, you are not alone. Many of my clients with anxiety disorders report that it is really hard for them to slow down and actually relax. This can be particularly frustrating in the summer months when we feel we should relax. (It is also frustrating other times of the year when we feel tired and burned out.)

This difficulty with relaxation occurs across many types of anxiety disorders but is most commonly reported by folks with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This condition is characterized by worry more days than not and is typically accompanied by physiological features such as muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, stomach butterflies or digestive issues, and trouble concentrating due to feeling distracted by ruminative thoughts. No wonder people with GAD find it hard to take it easy!

High-Functioning Anxiety

Some people with GAD also have features of high-functioning anxiety (HFA), an informal diagnosis that accounts for the moments when anxiety causes us to be perfectionistic, overperform, strive, be rigid, want to plan ahead and be in control, be on time, follow rules, and completely eliminate uncertainty. People with HFA may bury themselves in work, aim to get perfect grades, plan things far in advance, overprepare, research things well before they do them, ruminate over small details, try to keep busy, and often exhaust themselves in the process.

If you have HFA, you likely would not call yourself “laid back.” Not surprisingly, HFA makes relaxation very difficult, in part due to the fear of being idle, which makes many people with this type of anxiety uncomfortable. We find leisure time a bit threatening and prefer to be “productive.” In some cases, being alone with one’s thoughts is difficult, which drives people to seek distraction in the form of work or other “busy” tasks.

Many psychologists would advise such clients to try to relax and to get comfortable being uncomfortable. This is not bad advice and is consistent with what cognitive-behavioral (CBT) psychologists refer to as exposure therapy, in which you try to experience anxious feelings on purpose, in order to acclimate or get used to them.

Exposure to imperfection, tolerating uncertainty, and confronting the limitations of control are all essential life skills, and we should all practice these when we can.

Challenging Our Belief Systems

However, I think it is even more essential (and helpful) to examine the belief systems that we have that make relaxation difficult. Labeled by psychologists as schemas or core beliefs, these belief systems tend to include deeply held ideas about ourselves, the world, and other people.

An example of a high-functioning anxious belief system may be, “I must be productive at all times” or “If I relax and take it easy, I will completely drop the ball.”

Often, these belief systems involve very subtle, often subconscious, rules or attitudes, such as, “I can only relax after I get a certain amount of work done,” or “People should be industrious to avoid being lazy.”

These belief systems are hard to challenge, because they are so deeply held, and often stem from childhood.

What to do? Try asking yourself if these beliefs are helping you or hurting you. Examine what function they serve. Often, the function is protective (i.e., we believe that staying on top of everything will prevent bad things from happening, which, sadly, is just not the case). See if you can challenge these ideas just a little and consider contradictory evidence (i.e., there are plenty of times you have gotten work done without being completely tense).

Using Anxiety to Our Advantage

Further, I often give my clients a slightly radical suggestion: Use your anxiety to your advantage. By this, I mean find ways to relax that actually work for you, that are consistent with your values and your preferences.

For example, I personally find organizing my home very soothing and incredibly satisfying. This behavior functions as a way to occupy my brain and actually relaxes me.

This concept can be applied anytime, anywhere, even while on vacation. If you simply can’t zone out on a beach, go for a walk on the beach or on an excursion.

If your ways of “relaxing” involve a slight element of productivity, that is OK! It is most important that you find them truly enjoyable and that you don’t overdo it and exhaust yourself.

The key is to avoid the burnout that comes with overachievement. If you find that you are running yourself ragged, it is time to take a pause and evaluate.

I am reminded of a graduate school mentor who told us, “The graves are filled with people who thought they were indispensable.”

Most of all, give yourself permission to take a break. Carve out moments to decompress and do things that you genuinely enjoy. Life is short. Choose ease. After all, rest is productive.

And the next time you find yourself on a pool float, read a book, talk to a friend or family member, or throw a ball. You might find that you actually…relax.

Portions of this post have been excerpted from my book, Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry.

Blog as published in Psychology Today on 08/03/23.


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