How to Rest, for Real, When You’re a Very Anxious Person

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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As tempted as you might be to try whatever you can to stomp the feeling out ASAP, resist the urge to interrupt your body’s process. Treating your anxiety as a threat and spiraling about how to fix it is a quick way to douse your system with even more stress hormones, prolonging your anxiety response. On the other hand, “if you allow your sympathetic nervous system to run its course without fighting against it, your parasympathetic nervous system will kick into gear and usher in a relaxation response,” says Dr. Rosmarin. “The way to relax is by going through anxiety, not by going around it or resisting it.”

To ride it out, Dr. Rosmarin recommends focusing on the experience of anxiety itself. “Just notice it in your body,” he says. “Count how long it lasts. Don’t judge. Don’t try to change it. Just observe it and let yourself feel it.”

2. Whip out the SMART goals.

“I’m going to relax,” is a nice sentiment, but also pretty useless. For one, it doesn’t offer much direction when it comes to what to actually do. “Relaxation is not one activity—it’s the outcome of any activity,” Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, therapist and cofounder of the therapy practice Viva Wellness, previously told SELF. Because of that, you should lead with figuring out what actually helps you recharge long-term—and exploring different activities is an excellent first step.

“We can’t set feelings as goals, because feelings don’t work that way,” therapist Mary Houston, LCSW, tells SELF. Instead, she suggests using SMART goals, or goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound, to experiment and find what works. For example, you might start by brainstorming a list of activities to try—from sleeping with your phone in a separate room to listening to a special playlist—and then set a goal to try one item from the list this week.

You might be wondering, “Hold on, didn’t you just tell me not to try to relax?” Yes, but the difference here is focusing on the process instead of the outcome. “It’s about saying, ‘I’d like to get this done, but I’m not gonna have any expectations of how I’m gonna feel at the end of it,’” says Houston. “Those expectations can make the task itself feel burdensome instead of enjoyable.”

3. Do an anxious brain dump.

It’s hard to tackle your anxiety if you don’t know what’s causing it, so Dr. Rosmarin recommends taking inventory of what seems to be interfering with your rest time. If you’re struggling to relax, set a timer and write down everything you’re anxious about. Sometimes getting your worries out of your head and onto paper can lead to feeling less overwhelmed at the moment.

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