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People With Anxiety Sometimes Choose Worrying Over Relaxing as a Coping Mechanism

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Oct 14, 2019

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It’s been proven. Asking an anxious person to relax or calm down doesn’t work — in fact, it can make things worse. According to new research, people who struggle with generalized anxiety disorder worry about feeling a sharp surge in negative emotions, should something bad happen. To avoid this, they purposefully resist relaxation and continue worrying.

While techniques such as deep breathing and meditation may help some people with anxiety disorders to relax, researchers from Penn State University have found that they are likely to feel even more anxious when taken through relaxation exercises.

“People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts,” Dr. Michelle Newman, a professor of psychology and senior author, said in a press release. “The more you do it, the more you realize you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”


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In 2011, Dr. Newman developed the theory — the contrast avoidance theory — at the heart of the latest study. “The theory revolves around the idea that people may make themselves anxious intentionally as a way to avoid the letdown they might get if something bad were to happen,” she said. Even though researchers have known about relaxation-induced anxiety since the 1980s, no specific cause had been attributed to it — until now.

The findings of the study, recently published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, could potentially help people who experience “relaxation-induced anxiety, a paradoxical phenomenon wherein people experience a spike in their anxiety during relaxation training,” according to the study. “This isn’t actually helpful and just makes you more miserable,” Dr. Newman explained, “but, because most of the things we worry about don’t end up happening, what [is] reinforced in the brain is, ‘I worried and it didn’t happen so I should continue worrying.'”

The study involved 96 college students: 32 people with generalized anxiety disorder, 34 people with major depressive disorder and 30 with neither disorder. The researchers guided them through relaxation techniques, followed by exposing them to videos designed to elicit fear or sadness. The participants, then, answered questions about how sensitive they were to changes in their emotional state — for instance, whether they were uncomfortable with the negative emotions incited by the videos right after relaxing and whether the relaxation exercise helped in dealing with the discomfort that followed after. After filling this survey, they were guided through another relaxation exercise, followed by a second, similar survey.


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The results showed that people with anxiety disorders were more likely to be sensitive to sudden emotional changes, such as going from feeling relaxed to feeling stressed. This sensitivity was further linked to feeling anxious during the relaxation exercises themselves. The researchers observed a similar pattern for those with major depressive disorder, even though the effect wasn’t as strong.

Hanjoo Kim, the co-author of the study and a graduate student in psychology at Penn State, explained that those with anxiety disorders need relaxation more than others, but ironically, they are the ones who are more vulnerable to these techniques. “Measuring relaxation-induced anxiety and implementing exposure techniques targeting the desensitization of negative contrast sensitivity may help patients reduce this anxiety,” she said in the press release, adding that it was important to examine relaxation-induced anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder and persistent mild depression, as well. “Our findings will hopefully serve as a cornerstone for providing better care for these populations.”

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Written By Pallavi Prasad

Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle’s Features Editor. When she isn’t fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.

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