Nobody likes being anxious ... right? If that’s true, then why do we sometimes feel so unsettled — weird, even — when life is calm or everything feels settled? This can feel like your heart racing when you’re lying in bed or your thoughts spiraling when watching TV. Or, it might be a tendency to pack your schedule to avoid having downtime.
When you’re used to living with stress, getting a break can actually trigger anxiety. Nadia Addesi, social worker and psychotherapist, addressed this in a TikTok: “If you feel anxious even though things in your life are finally where you want them to be, it can be because you’ve been so used to living in chaos that you don’t trust the feeling of being calm,” she stated.
Quiet can feel suspicious if you aren’t used to it. “Your brain thinks it always needs to be in survival mode,” she added. “It’s waiting for the next bad thing to happen.”
Calm often comes before the storm of anxiety — but why? Therapists share the most common reasons why being calm can make you anxious.
Deeper-level anxieties rise to the surface.
“In quiet times, thoughts and anxieties that are usually tucked away and buffered by the busyness of day-to-day life come to the surface,” said Samantha Gambino, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City. “These are generally deeper-level anxieties, maybe about life phases, life transitions or underlying concerns.”
She explained the break from “everyday tasks, racing thoughts and feelings, and life demands” is what gives your brain space to focus on the deeper anxieties.
“When our environment becomes calm, our minds appear louder,” said Mitch Keil, a licensed clinical psychologist in California. “For most of us, our minds are not a place of refuge. They contain voices of concern, criticism, worry, insecurity and fear.”
You are used to thinking of worst-case scenarios.
It’s hard to enjoy the water if you’re worried about a shark. “During calm times, most with anxiety have learned to falsely associate the present ease with a coming storm,” Keil said.
Your anxious mind will tell you that something bad always follows something good, so you can’t rest. “Many individuals predict the worst-case scenario, catastrophize situations, or are waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Gambino added. “So, in good times, they cannot enjoy the experience and be in the present.”
You’re too focused on preserving the good times.
On the other hand, you may become obsessed with staying in the good times. “Those that tend to struggle with anxiety often have a belief that they can capture states of calm and preserve them long-term,” Keil said. “They forget the transient, impermanent nature of life and emotion.”
Accepting that the good times may not last forever, instead of holding on to them as tightly as you can, can extend happy times because they aren’t ruined by anxiety.
Feeling anxious is a habit.
Having anxious thoughts can feel automatic, explained Alisa Kamis-Brinda, owner and psychotherapist at Serenity Solutions, LLC in Philadelphia. “When someone is resting, it is common for their mind to think how it always does, worrying and having anxious thoughts, even if there is nothing in that moment to make them feel anxious,” she said.
It doesn’t matter if the anxiety is warranted or not; if your brain is used to doing something, it’ll do it. “People are creatures of habit, which means we become conditioned to our environments, situations, and experiences because they are what we can expect — whether it is safe, makes sense or is helpful,” said Janika Joyner, a therapist and owner of Higher Elevation Psychosocial Services, LLC in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Feeling calm is unfamiliar.
“For people who are used to living with stress, loud noises and chaos, a calm environment can feel uncomfortable and weird,” Kamis-Brinda said.
She compares it to a person who lives in a loud city, who can’t sleep on vacation in a quiet countryside “because the quiet is deafening to them.”
Being anxious is part of your identity.
“Some people do not know what to do with themselves when they are not anxious,” Gambino said.
If your identity is connected to “being nervous and unsettled,” Gambino said, then moments of calm can be overwhelming because your “identity is compromised.” “They are unsure of who they are without their anxiety, which ends up causing anxiety,” she said.
You’re experiencing delayed-onset anxiety.
Maybe you went through a demanding project at work or dealt with an unexpected emergency that required a cool head. When it was over, you may experience a delayed-onset anxiety.
“When people are able to remain calm during stressful situations, the anxiety often shows up after the stress has ended,” Kamis-Brinda said.
Your body’s adapted to a constant state of anxiety.
Anxiety can cause changes in breathing, elevated heart rate, nausea, racing thoughts and other physical and mental changes, according to Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a licensed clinical psychologist and media advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
“If we feel anxious most of the time, our body will go into protective mode and ensure that it adapts to our current state,” Lira de la Rosa said.
Because of this, you may not always realize when you’ve been carrying a lot of anxiety. “We adapt to this environment and all of the anxious thoughts, physiological symptoms, and other anxiety symptoms become our new normal,” he said.
Taking a break makes you feel lazy.
Everyone deserves rest, but living in a productivity-obsessed, capitalist society can make you feel guilty for taking a break. “For anxious people who are used to always doing things, having free time often leads to thoughts that they should be doing something,” Kamis-Brinda said.
“This is particularly common in our society where productivity is looked upon favorably, whereas relaxing, doing something enjoyable (and non-productive), or doing nothing is seen as lazy,” she added.
Perfectionists are particularly susceptible to this. “Perfectionists believe that they should always be productive and overextend themselves with tasks and responsibilities,” Joyner said. “They tend to associate their self-worth and value with their accomplishments.”
You may have relaxation-induced anxiety (RIA).
A 1988 study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found those with RIA may have a fear of becoming anxious or a fear of losing control brought on when they are relaxed.
“Relaxation-induced panic or anxiety occurs for some when attempting to use relaxation strategies, such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing,” said Brooke Schwartz, a therapist based in Los Angeles. “In trying to calm their normally anxious bodies and minds, they experience a paradoxical experience of increased anxiety due to a difficulty letting go and a perceived lack of control.”
It could be a trauma response.
Finally, you could also be experiencing a trauma response, according to Schwartz. “If in the past something anxiety- or fear-inducing happened when you were calm or relaxed, feeling calm may be a signal to the body that a threat is coming,” she said.
Or maybe someone made you feel bad for relaxing in the past. “Perhaps someone was rewarded by their parents for keeping busy as a child — the subtle messaging here is that there’s something wrong with being content with what is, which gets internalized and integrated into one’s own thoughts about themselves over time,” she explained.
How To Actually Enjoy The Calm Moments
Relaxing should be fun — and there are ways to enjoy the good times again.
Start by taking a break from being productive. “Productivity addiction is a real thing,” Keil said. “We live in competitive, uncertain, success-oriented culture and productivity has become an anxiety-soothing reflex.”
“Find activities and pursuits that you enjoy for the sheer process, with no beneficial outcome,” he continued. “This is vital ingredient in the good life and can help immensely with anxiety. As you find these engagements, let go of the guilt again and again and again. It is a toxic guilt that will steal your ability to fully participate and enjoy the life right in front of you.”
Psychotherapy and mindfulness can also help you manage your symptoms and change your anxiety-increasing behavior, according to Keil. Reach out to a mental health professional to learn more.
No amount of extra work will replace the joy of doing something you love and living in the moment. With a little help, you can fully enjoy resting.