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"Stress-laxing": Conquering the Guilt of Self-Care

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Throughout the week, our thoughts often gravitate towards the approaching weekend, or we eagerly anticipate the holidays that loom on the horizon. Especially now, as the holiday season approaches, it’s natural to look forward to these periods of relaxation. However, for many, taking time to relax is accompanied by a nagging sense of guilt, and our minds begin racing with thoughts like:

Why am I not being productive?

I’m wasting my day!

Why am I so lazy?

This phenomenon, aptly coined “stress-laxing”, can cast a shadow on our ability to truly unwind. If you’ve ever experienced this before, rest assured, you are not alone. With the work-focused attitudes of today’s culture, it can be easy to associate our productivity with our self-worth, compelling us to feel the need to elaborately justify ourselves when we take a moment to rest. This can be especially true with the blurred lines of work-and-home life that have arisen since the introduction of hybrid working.

I’m Maddy, a PhD student here at the Stress, Psychiatry and Immunology (SPI lab - the team that brings you Inspire the Mind), and I aim to uncover the reasons behind relaxation guilt, and how we can overcome it to ensure our time for self-care is used to its greatest potential.

Understanding relaxation guilt and its triggers

“Stress-laxing” encapsulates a phenomenon that researchers have been investigating for years: relaxation-induced anxiety. It’s contradictory, as people who need to relax and de-stress end up in a self-perpetuating cycle where they cannot alleviate their anxieties by switching off. To add to the irony, individuals who are more susceptible to experiencing relaxation-induced anxiety tend to be those with anxiety disorders, despite the fact they may need this relaxation more than those without such disorders.

The importance of relaxation

Here at the SPI lab, a core component of our research is the negative impacts that stress can have on our health. While there is limited research directly examining the effects of relaxation guilt on mental health, studies exploring the impact of chronic stress and guilt on well-being indirectly shed light on this issue.

High levels of stress can increase levels of the hormone cortisol. When cortisol levels are continuously high, it can affect our mental state, leading to poor concentration, irritability, and, in some cases, depression. Further, chronically high levels of cortisol have been linked to negative effects on our physical health, impacting our immune and digestive systems. When we engage in relaxation but end up feeling more stressed for doing so, cortisol levels will only get higher. Indeed, failure to relax and chronically high stress can lead to burnout, a topic which has been covered here on Inspire the Mind by Dr. Mia Eisenstadt.

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Moreover, it’s important to note that guilt, in its essence, is a negative emotion which arises when we believe we are doing something wrong. When we experience guilt, it often gives rise to self-doubt, anxiety, and diminished self-esteem. Consequently, feeling guilty for prioritising self-care can send us into a negative cycle, amplifying self-criticism and undermining our self-worth.

The importance of quality relaxation reaches beyond reducing stress. I’m sure many have experienced the occurrence of dedicating hours to a task, grappling with it without a breakthrough, only to return after a break to experience that ‘eureka’ moment. As it happens, there is a scientific explanation for this. As mentioned in Psychology Today, this is rooted in the concept that the frontal lobe of our brains, a region responsible for decision-making and planning, can operate creatively during moments of rest rather than when you are overly using mental capacity. In other words, our brains require intervals of rest to effectively consolidate knowledge and operate optimally, allowing us to come up with solutions. Therefore, taking breaks from work can lead to accelerations in productivity.

Strategies to overcome relaxation guilt

While we can force ourselves to take time out of work and engage in relaxation, diminishing feelings of guilt and stress is a more difficult task. Strategies to overcome these feelings will differ between individuals, depending on their personal responsibilities and coping mechanisms. Nevertheless, I have pulled together some suggestions that have personally helped me:

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  1. Incorporate relaxation into your to-do list: While work tasks are concrete and contribute to our progress, relaxation can seem like an unproductive use of time. Overcoming relaxation guilt may be as straightforward as reshaping your priorities to recognise that relaxation, in itself, can be productive. By intentionally scheduling moments for relaxation, we can shift our perspective from viewing it as a hindrance to success, to something which enhances our potential.

  2. Acknowledge your stress: If you’re feeling stressed while relaxing, it can be easy to force yourself into a state of denial. However, feeling stressed is our innate way of warning us of potential danger, and when we ignore these feelings our bodies continue to send stress signals to prompt us to take action. Indeed, research has shown that consciously recognising your stress allows you to stop your automatic reaction, allowing you to opt for a more beneficial response.

  3. Plan your relaxation activities: Personally, I often find myself deciding to take a short break and take to mindlessly scrolling on social media. Half an hour later, my break is suddenly over, and I feel no more rejuvenated than when I was working, but I feel bad about wasting my time. Planning activities during your breaks from work can help us feel as if we have accomplished something, especially if this is something we really enjoy like reading, walking, or even watching your favourite TV show.

As a new PhD student, where my new position is exciting and I want to showcase my abilities, it can be difficult to remember to take time to relax, and even more difficult to do so without feeling guilty. Nevertheless, with the holidays just around the corner, it is vital to offer yourself the invaluable gift of unwinding and fully embracing relaxation, by reminding ourselves that:

“Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax” – Mark Black


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