Hey sleep enthusiast, have you heard of stresslaxing?
It’s when you have the intention of trying to do something to calm your mental well-being, maybe by doing an activity such as yoga or meditation. However, when you get to the yoga mat and start trying to relax, you find the mental chatter turns up even louder. That’s the frustration of stresslaxing in a nutshell!
As a sleep coach, stresslaxing is a common experience that I hear about from clients in various situations, as well as something I can relate to from my past insomniac days. I now share what I have learned about taking a holistic approach to well-being in Restful Sleep coaching sessions, as well as through the resources on this website.
So let’s explore the experience of stresslaxing from a holistic perspective - look out for an alternative that you can try to trick your mind into relaxing at the end.
What happens to us when we experience stresslaxing?
The core of stresslaxing is essentially an inability to slow down and be in the present moment. There is a disconnect between the body and mind and this can show up in different ways for different people. Some examples of what it can look like for different aspects of well-being include:
This happens when mental chatter or racing thoughts take over the allocated time for relaxation, like in the yoga class example or not being able to stay present with a friend at lunch because you keep thinking about work tasks.
In the body
Stresslaxing shows up in the stress signals of the body, such as an elevated heart rate, headaches, rapid breathing, muscle tension and more. You may find yourself becoming more aware of particular effects on your body as you sit down to attempt a meditation session or another activity where you try to relax.
This takes a few different forms: from snapping at others during minor misunderstandings, to having a reduced capacity to empathise with others. These kinds of social experiences can leave feelings of disappointment from experiences of disconnection. They can even lead to withdrawing from social interactions altogether to avoid future stress.
Stresslaxing can bring mood swings - like losing your patience when those calming activities just don’t hit the mark. It can heighten emotional sensitivity, causing exaggerated reactions to minor stressors. These kinds of reactions can then bring shame when reflecting on past experiences and can lower self-esteem over time.
There is often a sense of hopelessness and isolation that comes with stresslaxing - just like those hours spent willing yourself to fall asleep at night. When everyone else seems to be having a profound experience in the breathwork class, you may feel disconnected from your inner self, other people, a religious faith, even the wider universe
Why does stresslaxing happen?
In our fast-paced world, it can be difficult to unwind. An outcome of this is a society that highly values productivity and has lots of overstimulation and distraction - all of which can take away from deep rest and lead to burnout. The focus on busyness can increase levels of stress which then disrupts the natural cycles of the body - including the flow between alertness and relaxation.
Some of the impacts of shifts in stress and relaxation are covered in a study from the Journal of Affective Disorders about ‘the paradox of relaxation training’. This research looks at how people with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and depression may experience increased anxiety during relaxation exercises.
It also found that many people were afraid to experience an increase in negative emotions, so they found themselves sticking to a mental habit of continuous worrying, in order to avoid directly facing challenging emotions.
Whilst you may not identify with living with anxiety or depression overall, mental well-being exists on a spectrum and can change on a daily, even hourly basis. So on those days when you may not have so much energy during a period of patchy sleep, you may find yourself less likely to be able to enjoy that well-being class you signed up for and more likely to fall into stresslaxing.
Feeling stressed about relaxing is not a personal failure
When working in sleep coaching sessions, a common limiting belief that often comes up when exploring stresslaxing scenarios is “there must be something wrong with me if I can’t just relax when everyone else can”. Another one that I hear a lot, as we get more into habitual ways of being and thinking, is "I did this to myself".
Doing things in gentle ways is a core value of Restful Sleep coaching, so I encourage clients to see how shaming themselves for struggling to relax or pressuring themselves to pursue rest as a goal isn't effective. Instead, I invite a reframe of stresslaxing as a common condition that many people experience as a common result of living in a world full of busyness.
Is there a cure for stresslaxing?
Practicing mindfulness is a way to look after your mind that involves exercises to be more in the present moment that can bring more calm and relaxation over time. However, for many people, trying to introduce mindful meditation or other practices can be a direct route to stresslaxing.
Instead, I like to invite clients to get curious about taking a different approach…
A way to relax your mind from stress
As we know, the inner chatter, or ‘monkey mind’, perpetually wants to be productive. So, rather than trying to go against this, a more accessible way of finding relaxation is through choosing to do activities that involve some ‘doing’ and simultaneously, sneakily, bring relaxation.
In sleep coaching sessions, I typically ask ‘can you think of an activity that brings you relaxation? One that, when viewed from an outside perspective, nobody could accuse you of slacking off - not even yourself?!’
These kinds of activities can be anything, from crafts, such as knitting or making collages, doing a puzzle, drawing or painting, fishing, going for an evening walk, cooking or reading. The main thing is to set aside intentional time to focus on this one thing. You can try out a few different options and track which brought the most calm. You can also note the conditions, how your energy was on that day and any other factors that helped make the activity relaxing for you.
How sleep coaching can help
Trying out different activities and seeing how they impact your relaxation is something you can do on your own - and accountability can make all the difference when it comes to motivation with staying on track.
That’s where sleep coaching comes in - I guide clients through their own process of taking a comprehensive look at all of the different choices made in waking hours and how they impact relaxation and sleep. If you’d like to find out how sleep coaching could help with your sleep struggles, you can book a free discovery call to ask any questions you may have about stresslaxing or any other challenges you may have when it comes to sleep.