The Problem With Relaxing

A recent episode of popular cartoon show Bluey resonated with thousands of Australians. No, it wasn’t the one about the daughter’s first steps (although that one surely did) — instead, it’s a new episode where mother Chilli can’t seem to stop her mind turning as she sits on the beach with a novel while on vacation.

It’s no wonder this concept struck a chord. Relaxing is some of the hardest work there is. We all know we need it, yet the act of actually stopping and smelling the roses can be elusive even once we arrive at that five-star resort by the ocean. So why is it that many of us find it just so hard to relax?

The answer isn’t one-size-fits-all. For some of us, an inability to relax is directly related to mental health, with conditions like anxiety and depression directly impacting our ability to destress. For others, the reason relaxation feels challenging has to do with a different kind of pressure.

According to, the average Australian checks their phone an average of 7.8 times per hour. That’s almost every eight minutes. This is a form of addiction, which can lead to a sense of restlessness if we’re not meeting that urge or giving in to that compulsion. That means relaxing can be hard as we want to be on our phones. Alternatively, it can mean that “relaxing” look like mindless scrolling on our phones, which does quiet the noise in our heads and help us switch off — but it also switches us off from ourselves. We lose track of time and may feel as if we’re taking a break from thinking, but we’re still being stimulated, still being exposed to new content that forces our brains to react, and we’re still not truly entering a state of Zen.

Another reason relaxation can be hard to access is due to our innate drive for mastery. We constantly strive to be good at things, even relaxation, which can lead to a true sense of disappointment and anxiety when, after sitting on the beach with that novel for a few minutes, we don’t immediately feel as if we’re making progress toward our goals.

Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons relaxation is hard for some of us is because we simply don’t know how to do it. Look at some of the most recent creative trends to hit the adult market. From knitting, to colouring, to clay, to paint and sip classes, there are many different forms of artistic activity that have been touted as possible solutions to the problem of our stress-free lifestyles. And they can work, too. Activities such as these promote a sense of mindfulness as the user focuses in on the task at hand and loses themselves in their craft.

Yet they don’t work for everyone. Some people find the idea childish or worry about their artistic capabilities. Others worry about how long it’s taking them to achieve that relaxation state, or how often they should be relaxing, or what relaxing truly feels like, which can be another reason we find it a challenge — it’s hard to relax when we’re worrying about relaxing. This can lead to a condition known as stresslaxation.

“Stresslaxation is the anxiety we experience when trying to relax,” Dr Jolanta Burke, CPsychol and Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Positive Health Sciences in Ireland, says. “For example, you might be experiencing a stressful day. You know you need a break, so you stop and try breathing exercises, but instead of calming down, your heart rate increases; you become more agitated and keep beating yourself up for being unable to relax. While you’re experiencing stresslaxation, you may be flooded with negative thoughts about yourself (e.g. What’s wrong with me that I cannot relax?), your practice (eg This is not working!), the situation (eg I’m going to die if I don’t learn to relax) or incoherent thoughts (eg when you’re panicking).”

If you think you may experience stresslaxation, you’re not alone. “Between 30 and 50 per cent of people experience it,” Dr Joanna says. “Some people are prone to it more than others, especially when they already experience higher than usual anxiety levels.”


Stresslaxation is not an incurable condition. The solution for this, however, does vary from person to person.

“Stresslaxation may happen because we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that a problem does not exist,” Dr Jolanta says. “This leads to focusing on reducing the symptoms of stress rather than the source of it. This, in turn, may lead to experiencing stresslaxation as we are being incongruent — telling our bodies it is all okay when it is not. So, using a more effective coping strategy may help us alleviate this.”

Making lifestyle changes to reduce stress is one way to do this. First, we need to identify the source of our stress and work out effective solutions, perhaps with the help of a professional psychologist or counsellor.

Incorporating mindful activities into daily life can also help us access a state of relaxation more easily. Things like meditation, journaling and yoga can help us achieve a state of mindfulness — and, like with many things in life, the more we practise the task, the better at it we become. Practising regular mindful activities in daily life can then make accessing a state of mindful relaxation on vacation easier, again reducing that feeling of stresslaxation.

“Also, remember that mindfulness practises may not be for everyone at all times,” Dr Jolanta says. “So, please don’t beat yourself up over it; select a technique that works best for you.”

This article is featured in WellBeing Wellness Experiences 

Lauren Clarke

Lauren Clarke

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