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Why It's Frustrating When Therapists Teach Relaxation Skills for Anxiety



Imagine this scenario: You’re feeling anxiety, and your friend/family member/partner (in all their wisdom) says, “just relax! Stop worrying so much!” 


Oh, wait. I didn’t mean imagine. I meant remember. Remember how it helped so much?

Oh, shoot. Again, I meant to say didn’t help. It probably didn’t help. At least not in this scenario. 

So, your therapist later tries to teach relaxation skills, and you are not for it. I can see why. So let’s talk more about it. 

What are some of the reasons this feels so frustrating? And why do therapists keep doing this anyway? 

I’m a licensed clinical social worker who has also been in therapy myself, so I get both sides. Let’s get into it. Please note: I consider anxiety a subtype of fear and may use them interchangeably. This blog content is for informational purposes only. 

  1. The Frustrating Truth: How to Rid Yourself of Anxiety

Let’s get the first frustrating truth out of the way. Treating anxiety can be very complicated, but there is one truth that all therapists can agree on: Technically, it is impossible to be tense (that is, be in a state of fight-or-flight/fear) AND be relaxed. Therefore, if you could keep your body relaxed, you would be unable to feel fear and anxiety.

To keep it short, we therapists often have to teach, or at least explore, relaxation skills… because they work. I could even talk sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but I won’t nerd out too bad here. Suffice to say, the body is designed to be able to calm anxious feelings, and relaxation skills help engage this system. 

Too long didn’t read? Yes, we do think relaxation skills help. We have science to prove it. 


2. Lacking Validation and Understanding

Therapists are human (at least, at the time of this writing). We are bound to mess up. We are also likely just eager helpers. We want you to not feel bad as much as possible and as soon as possible. 

So, sometimes, we too jump to trying to help solve your problems instead of trying to understand and validate your problems. 

Solution? Tell your therapist you need some time to process before learning skills OR find a new therapist (I give you permission.)


3. Let’s Talk about Hiking

Let’s say you’ve hiked up a really tall mountain, and you now wanna get down. So you start climbing down. You look around you after a few minutes, and you notice you’re still really high up. Would you just stop and give up? Make this mountain your home? I hope not, because you are lower. It’s just not so notable, because it’s a small change downward on a really big mountain. You need to keep going. 

So many of us believe relaxation skills do not work because they don’t make the fear completely go away. That is, you don’t go from the top of the anxiety mountain to the bottom after three deep breaths. That said, you probably are calming down with the deep breaths; you’re just slightly lowered from the top which might not feel like much.

Solution? Try different skills that may have quicker results (ex. Eating a sour candy; Cooling yourself down) OR just keep going with the skills you got, knowing these things take time..


4. Speaking of Time, Let’s Talk Realistic Timelines

I will keep this one short, partially because I am no biologist or doctor. Hormones take time to process through our body. From my research and trainings, it seems that adrenaline (partially responsible for that racing heartbeat and high energy you feel when anxious) can take 15-20 minutes OR MORE to fully metabolize. That is, sometimes you just gotta wait it out. Practice relaxation to stop the process of fear. That is, stop the release of stress hormones. It’s like turning off the faucet in a bathtub. You stopped the water, but it will still take time to drain. More water, the more time it will take, but it will happen. More stress, the more time it will take, but it will happen if you use relaxation skills to stop it from escalating. 

Solution? Remind yourself that your body is capable of releasing the fear. Practice your relaxation techniques and allow your body to do the rest. Ride the wave down with sentences like, “my body is trying to help me stay safe. It’s scary to feel this way, but I am safe. It will be better with time."


5. I Mean… How Could I Expect You to Be Positive and Anxious?

It seems intuitive that you would not be able to be super positive about learning relaxation skills when you’re feeling anxious. Again, I won’t get too into the science, but our body’s happy chemicals do not work so well when our body is flooded with scared chemicals.

Solution? Hate your therapist for teaching relaxation skills if you want. They can probably take it. Hold on to any hope you can. You most likely won’t feel such hate once you’re calm. 


6. Talk to Your Doctor

I don’t mean to add more fear, but talk to your doctor. All the relaxation skills in the world might not work if there’s a medical condition causing the anxiety. I won’t add fear here by giving examples. I’m not a doctor anyway.

Solution? Talk to your doctor. A therapist can still help but getting medically cleared is key.


7. You Haven’t Found the Right Relaxation Skill for You

Not all skills are for everyone. It may even be that some skills work for you only some of the time. You may need to explore other skills or even new styles of therapy.

Additionally, therapists are most likely to teach the skills first that work for them personally, so your therapist might just be a little biased. That probably isn’t even their fault. They cannot master them all anyway.

Example: I know many skills, but at the time of writing this, I am not trained in tapping. I cannot teach my clients tapping skills for anxiety, but I have absolutely heard tapping is helpful for many people. I would have to refer clients elsewhere for them to learn tapping. Happy to do so. 

Solution: Talk to your therapist about other skills and options, which might include your therapist making a referral to another therapist who is an expert.

Hope this is helpful!

Located in California and looking for a therapist? Schedule a free 15 minute consult with me at LCSWerica.com.

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