By Anna Alford: Culture Columnist

Meditation leaving you more stressed? Practicing your ‘Ommms’ resulting in more ‘arrrghhs’!? Befuddled about how you should ‘breathe from your diaphragm’? You are not alone.

For a small subset of people, usually those with pre-existing anxiety disorders, activities intended to relax you can actually induce further feelings of unease. This is an experience called ‘relaxation-induced anxiety’ or RIA.

up to 53% of young adults have experienced the phenomenon of RIA at some point in their lives.

During usual relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ system, is dominant, helping you to relax by slowing down your breathing and heart rate. This is the opposite of the ‘fight or flight’ response, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. Humans need to spend time in a rested state in order to let the body rest and repair, to offset chronic stress and its associated negative health effects.

It is important to note that RIA is not the same as the inability to relax. People who have this symptom can relax initially, but this relaxation soon morphs into moderate or even intense short-lived anxiety.


Clinicians have hypothesized multiple reasons for why people experience RIA, particularly during meditation. Meditation is a compelling tool that often amplifies our self-awareness, loudening the focus on our current emotional state. When we meditate our thoughts are of a very introspective-nature. If you are already quite introverted and decidedly self-aware, looking inward may result in sensory overload. Contemplation and this kind of focused awareness on the self can bring repressed trauma to the surface, resulting in unpleasant emotional upheavals.

RIA may also be related to something known as the contrast avoidance model. People are concerned that they may lose control of their emotions, going from feeling good to having a sudden spike of negative emotion. If you continually feel anxious, these spikes are much smaller, or don’t happen at all. Individuals are more comfortable in an anxious state, using it as a sort of safety blanket. A recent estimate says that up to 53% of young adults have experienced the phenomenon of RIA at some point in their lives. Although meditation advocates back the idea that confronting challenges and learning how to work with them is a key part of the exercise, it is important that anyone who regularly experiences RIA to discontinue the practice and seek professional medical help before experimenting with meditation any further.

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