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How to Rest: A Guide for the Anxious

    If you’re very anxious, you know how difficult it is to relax. Anxiety has ruined many a rest day for you by gatecrashing your precious downtime and destroying any opportunity to unwind.

     How to get real rest when you're anxious.

    While it would be great to have tips on stomping anxiety when you need to relax, it’s not that simple. So, how should you rest when anxiety creeps up?  

    Don’t fight the feeling  

    When anxiety shows up, the typical response is to try hard to relax. However, the more you fight anxiety, the worse it gets.

    It’s common to feel anxious when your mind perceives a threat, whether real or imaginary. The sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight response, triggers this reaction. When this happens, stress hormones flood your system, causing physical symptoms such as an increased heart rate, heightened blood pressure, rapid breathing, and racing thoughts.

    Although it may be tempting to try to alleviate your anxiety, it’s best to allow your body to go through its natural process. Treating anxiety as a threat can exacerbate the situation by releasing even more stress hormones, which can prolong your anxiety response.

    Instead, try to ride it out. When you do this, your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest response) will eventually take over and help you relax. So, the next time you experience anxiety, try not to fight it. Pay attention to how your body feels and allow it to pass naturally.

    Set better goals  

    It's natural to want to relax, but making it your sole focus can make it more challenging to achieve. This is because relaxation results from an activity rather than an activity itself. Rather than striving for relaxation, setting specific and measurable goals is better.

    One way to start is by creating a list of activities you want to try, such as biking outdoors or listening to an anti-anxiety playlist. Then, set a goal to try one item from the list weekly. Focusing on the process rather than the outcome can make the task more enjoyable and less burdensome. Remember, the goal is to find activities that promote relaxation, not to stress about achieving a state of relaxation itself.

    Beware of shutting down and disconnecting  

    It's common to want to seek distraction through social media scrolling or binge-watching a comfort show when feeling anxious. While taking a break is essential, it’s equally important to monitor whether this temporary escape is not affecting your long-term rest efforts.

    So, the next time you scroll endlessly or binge-watch, take a moment to check in with yourself and your anxiety. Are you finding relief, or are you just ignoring your symptoms? Has the passage of time caused more stress? If the current relaxation method isn’t working, consider trying something new.

    Anxiety management tools  

    Standard anti-anxiety advice, like foundational self-care (like eating a healthy diet or taking a shower) and breathing exercises, are recommended so often for a good reason.

    Deep breathing is a simple yet powerful technique to have in your arsenal when dealing with anxiety. This is because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can make anxiety symptoms more manageable. 

    While deep breathing may not completely alleviate anxiety, it can help you reach a more stable mental state where you can take a step back and decide what to do next. If you’re interested in trying out breathing exercises, be sure to check out our article on breathing techniques.

    Establish clear boundaries  

    When work notifications or mindless scrolling through social media interfere with your leisure time, this is your sign to establish clear boundaries to prevent anxiety from seeping into your relaxation time.

    These boundaries could be digital, such as employing focus apps that block notifications, or physical, such as finding a new location you don’t associate with stress. If you’re unsure where to start, try refraining from using your phone in bed. It’s best to go screen-free at least 30 minutes before sleep.

    Gradually increase your capacity for anxiety  

    Anxiety interferes with our ability to rest, partly because we tend to fear it, which only adds to our stress levels. If we view anxiety as something that can disrupt our leisure time, we might unintentionally empower it to do just that.

    Over time, the more we prove to ourselves that we can handle anxiety and still carry on with our activities, the more resilient we become emotionally. This, in turn, can help us relax and unwind in the long run, even if it's not always easy.

    One helpful tip is to do something daily that challenges you a little and makes you anxious. Allow yourself to feel the anxiety and discomfort, but still push through. This can help you build the emotional strength to overcome anxiety and enjoy your downtime.