Is This Normal? “I Hate Relaxing”
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
I hate relaxing — because, well, I can’t relax, no matter how hard I try. And so, in the classic “grapes are sour” fashion, I’ve decided that I hate doing it. I can write, paint, sing (however awfully), stitch — but relaxing, nope. It feels as though my body was just never programmed for it — as though, it’s lacking the basic code that allows everyone else around me to sit back and unwind after a long day at work, leaving me to wonder: how? Do they not have thoughts rushing through their head at a speed of 500 miles per hour? When they lie down, do their brains not bombard them with every single embarrassing memory they’d rather forget? Aren’t they constantly reminded of every task on their to-do list for the following day, while being simultaneously haunted by every chore they didn’t get to?
Basically, does attempting to relax not boost their anxiety? Evidently, not.
Why am I like this, then? Is this even normal?
Growing up in a capitalist society that worships hustle culture impacts our ability to relax. “Think about how youngsters are being taught to learn these days. They are expected to work hard year-round. Even play is work. Camp is for honing athletic skills, losing weight, learning to write or make movies — that is, almost anything but just plain fun,” explains psychotherapist Diane Barth, adding, “Even though a desire to rest seems logical, it seems that when we stop pushing so hard, we [aren’t] mastering anything. So, then, we feel uncomfortable. When we feel guilty about relaxing, we often mean that we have made so many plans for ourselves that we cannot possibly accomplish them all.”
“I have a good life… a pretty wife, a good job that pays the bills, a house… Everything is good… [A] lot of people around me tell me to chill out and enjoy my life. They just don’t get it. No matter how hard I try, I can’t relax,” wrote another individual who appears to share my inability to relax. “I have been this way for a long time. Nothing is new… Why can’t I relax even when things are good?”
Well, normal, or not — at least, I’m not alone in this boat.
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The fact that we’re constantly on edge due to a multitude of stressors further exacerbates our inability to rest — not just by inducing intrusive, non-relaxing thoughts, but also by messing with our internal systems. “The demands of daily life are intense and never-ending… [S]tress, anxiety, and depression, which come on the heels of this kind of non-stop pressure to achieve, physically interfere with the body’s relaxation mechanisms,” Barth continues.
Not only that, but the fact that most of us are constantly toiling, also leaves us with very little energy — or even motivation — to relax, Rachel Andrew, a clinical psychologist, told The Guardian in 2018. At the end of a long day, I’m either sleepy enough to just flop on my bed and pass out, or stare at the ceiling in a state of agony, if for some inexplicable reason, I’ve convinced myself to try my hand at relaxing again.
There’s neurology at play, here, too. Living under constant stress can cause our sympathetic nervous system — which activates the body’s fight-or-flight response — to get stuck on overdrive, explain experts. As a result, we are unable to shake off the feelings of restlessness, panic, hypervigilance, and anxiety no matter how badly we want to relax.
The digital revolution — which has made it difficult for people to truly tune out of social media, work, or most other responsibilities even for a split second — is making it more and more difficult for people to relax. “I’ve noticed a rise in my practice, certainly over the last three to five years, of people finding it increasingly difficult to switch off and relax. And it’s across the lifespan, from age 12 to 70,” notes Andrew.
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The pressure we live under can also condition people to treat everything, including relaxation, as yet another task on their to-do list that they must achieve perfection in; this can, obviously, be counterproductive. An article notes that some people do, in fact, approach relaxation with a “perfectionist attitude” — constantly tracking their heart rate monitors to check whether the deep breathing techniques they’re practicing in order to calm down and let go, are working. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. As Barth remarks, “[F]ocusing on relaxation as yet another high-pressure goal — “I must relax, I must relax, I must relax” — is not going to cut it.”
Difficulty relaxing is also a trait commonly observed in adults living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. The hyperactivity, in its name, plays a part in the restlessness we experience — making it seem as though we’re constantly tensed. That — coupled with my perpetually fractured attention span, also as a result of my ADHD brain — does explain why my mind constantly wanders when I try to sit down with a glass of wine and unwind with an episode of the latest cringe reality show.
Given that ADHD also happens to be characterized by low levels of dopamine — which allows us to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation — our brains’ craving for it, also leaves us feeling unfocused on the task at hand, in favor of another that could give us a bigger dopamine rush.
This results in us being uninterested in things we’re doing, while simultaneously being interested in every other thing until, of course, we start doing those things — inducing an endless cycle of distraction that keeps us from being able to relax, ever, at all.
Well, I guess, I’ll go find ways to not relax during the festive break now. Sigh.