After my post about the boredom/anxiety cycle, I got some feedback about activities that help with anxiety – mostly exercise – and I realized I should write about the other side of anxiety, which is relaxation. But like I said in the boredom/anxiety post, it can often be difficult to find activities that actually soothe anxiety because it’s easy to slip into boredom. This is an issue that’s come up lately for two people in my life who experience anxiety disorder, one of whom takes anti-anxiety medication to manage it. Even with medication and talk therapy (or just deep conversations with a good friend), it can be hard to really ease anxiety without just giving in to boredom. I think this is because there is a difference between relaxing and recharging, and therefore between activities that are comforting and those that are energizing.
A comforting activity is something that scratches an itch – it relieves the immediate sensation of discomfort, but it doesn’t solve the root problem. When they’re in the service of relieving anxiety, these activities tend to be passive, like sleeping, eating a favorite food, putting on cozy clothing or blankets, watching TV, playing an immersive videogame, or having sex. There’s clearly a place in self-care for all of these things, but because these activities so immediately trigger feelings of comfort or satisfaction, it seems like they can become compulsive to the point that they never get rid of the itch. You just want to do the activity instead of dealing with your anxiety because it’s a comforting distraction.
On the other side of this are activities that are energizing. Energizing activities might not be comforting at all, but they give you the motivation to tackle your problems. We typically describe these as more active – physical activities like running or biking, mild mental/physical engagement like stretching or yoga, breathing exercises and meditation, “clean” foods like fruits and vegetables, drinking caffeine, or talking through a problem. But like comforting activities, there is a limit to how helpful these can be, because they can also become a kind of compulsion, or require so much energy that they just maintain the tension of anxiety. Like I said in my post about fad wellness, a lot of these activities can feed into an attitude of self-deprivation that makes you feel virtuous while adding to a growing anxiety about maintaining that lifestyle. Moreover, for some people these activities are themselves the impossible task, because their anxiety centers around active engagement.
So I don’t think it’s really the activities themselves that trigger relaxing or recharging. It’s framing the problem correctly and knowing yourself. To begin with, some anxiety really is fully relieved by relaxing with comforting activities. It could be the case that the anxiety is just a rational response to being busy, and all you need is some time to do nothing of consequence. But sometimes the problem is more convoluted than that, the anxiety is in layers of guilt and being overwhelmed that sit on top of that busy-ness. Sometimes the problem is so simple, but it’s muddied by the anxiety itself – the familiar cycle of knowing you should work out because it would make you happier and give you more energy, but not having the energy to work out. Where do you get the motivation then? How do you clear away the debris or kick start the process of implementing the solution you know will work? I think at that point it becomes a careful cocktail of relaxing and recharging, comforting and energizing. Like alternating heat and cold on a sprain, you need to use both in the right measure.
For me, I know that my perfect mixture is constantly changing and relies on variety. I need the freedom to cancel plans or move things around. I have my activities that relax and recharge me, but I know that they don’t always work and it’s easy for them to flip sides and contribute to the problem. Yoga is great for me, but feeling obligated to do yoga isn’t. I like tea, but I won’t enjoy it if I get bored of the flavor or feel like I’m eating too much sugar or if the weather is wrong (tea on a muggy day is disgusting, tea that gets cold too quickly is disappointing). Maybe this is a Goldilocks response, but I think it highlights that it’s not the activity itself that relaxes or recharges, but the state of mind that the activity elicits.
The moment that a comforting activity no longer satisfies, the moment it becomes compulsive, is the difference between catapulting myself into productivity and making my anxiety worse. It’s like riding a bike down a very long hill – the momentum will continue to carry me down, but the longer I wait to use that momentum, the harder it will be to start pedaling again. I have to kick myself into gear at just the right moment. At the same time, it feels like sometimes you need to just coast to fully realize what the problem is or how much it’s affecting you. I can’t get started yet, I haven’t figured out how to move past this obstacle. I confronted this the other day in my planning anxiety – I realized that even though I had come up with a research plan that made my travel easier and fit my fellowship budget, I hadn’t taken into account how lonely or overwhelmed I would feel with that plan. The growing anxiety around that loneliness was making me dig in my heels and try to slow down or stop my progress. I wish I had realized this earlier, because changing my plans is complicated and messy, but not dealing with these feelings would jeopardize my whole project. I was able to get to this point because I let myself relax enough to see my problem clearly before I zoomed right past it. I don’t think I could have set things up this way, but recognizing when to push myself just enough to pick my head up and self-reflect gave me the opportunity to move forward.
So in dealing with the boredom/anxiety cycle, it’s important to consider whether we’re just seeking comfort or if we’re trying to improve the situation. And judging ourselves doesn’t help – it’s not about whether we’re doing the right or virtuous thing, but whether we’re doing what is satisfying. It’s a personal responsibility to recognize when a “good” thing is no longer making us happy, even if it sounds like the right thing to do.