Have you ever seen the guards at Buckingham Palace in London? They are the ones who stand ramrod straight, eyes focused ahead, for hours and hours. Of course, there are tourists who attempt to distract them from their duty, but these soldiers remain rigidly vigil. Similarly, anxiety remains rigidly vigil and rarely issues the order “At ease.”
In order to truly relax, you need to recognize that you are in control of your life. You don’t need to get up and report to anxiety for duty. You have the power within yourself to stand down from anxiety and relax.
Anxious people are often skeptical of this power. When asked about the ability to relax, the anxious person will often say, “I can’t relax.” They will back up that statement with a long list of reasons why relaxation is impossible. These reasons are most often credited to outside circumstances or other people. The idea of having the power to relax, regardless of circumstances or the actions of others, is a foreign concept to anxious people. The thought that when they say “I cannot,” they really mean “I will not” is difficult to accept.
Anxieties demand that relaxation is only possible when the person is “safe.” Like a dangled carrot, safety seems always just out of reach. Safety is always out of reach because, for the anxious, safety does not come from what is happening around the person but from what is happening inside the person. An anxious person rarely feels safe, no matter the outside circumstances.
This is the false promise and the paradox of anxiety: anxiety says you are safe when you feel safe, but because you never feel safe, you never are safe. Never safe, you never truly relax. Again, feeling safe and being safe are two different things. Being safe is an objective conclusion. Feeling safe is a subjective opinion.
Hannah felt she couldn’t relax until her house was completely clean to her standards. Untidy, to Hannah, meant unsafe. Was Hannah unsafe in a house with dishes left in the sink? Objectively no, but subjectively yes. Hannah prioritized her feelings of unsafety over spending family time with her children and husband. A messy house didn’t put Hannah in any danger, but rejecting her family did because her rejection jeopardized those vital relationships.
If you’re holding out until the conditions are just right to relax, you may find you never relax. Unable to relax, you may find you are never satisfied with your state of being. If you can’t be satisfied, you cannot be content. I think relaxation and contentment are a matched pair. When a person is very content, then the door is opened wide for true relaxation.
Anxious people could learn a thing or two about contentment from the apostle Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, he made an astonishing statement. He said he had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). Paul said that in any situation, he could find contentment, whether in need or in plenty, well fed or hungry, because of the strength he had through Christ (Philippians 4:12–13). The apostle Paul learned how to be content whatever his circumstances—and, remember, in 2 Corinthians 11:23–28 he listed some of those circumstances:
- working hard
- in prison
- in danger of his life
- beaten; pelted with stones
- adrift in the sea
- moving from place to place
- in danger from rivers, bandits, other people
- in danger in the city and in the country
- long days and sleepless nights
- hungry, thirsty, cold, and naked
- concerned about his ministry and work
If he could learn, through all of that, to find contentment, shouldn’t we be able to learn to find contentment and relaxation, even given the pressures of our lives?
I like that Paul said he “learned.” I feel better because that means Paul wasn’t one of those people who are naturally content. This also means that contentment— and I would argue relaxation—is a skill that can be learned. No more of this “I can’t.” Instead, you need to admit, “I can, but I don’t know how”; and further, “I don’t know how, but I can learn.” Anxieties are dead-end thinkers; you must become a possibility thinker.
Now is the time to give yourself permission to assign relaxation a place in your life. Learning to relax means you will initially need to work at not working. Again, this will not feel natural at first. You may find yourself constantly popping up, scurrying off—either mentally or physically—to take care of some worry, only to stop and tell yourself to, in essence, sit back down!
Tell fear no, so you can tell relaxation yes. Stop listening to all the reasons you can’t or shouldn’t, and remind yourself of the reasons you can and should.
If you or a loved one would like to discuss taking the next step. We run an award-winning Anxiety Treatment Program.