This article is part of SELF’s second annual Rest Week, an editorial package dedicated to doing less. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that taking care of yourself, physically and emotionally, is impossible without genuine downtime. With that in mind, we’ll be publishing articles up until the new year to help you make a habit of taking breaks, chilling out, and slowing down. (And we’re taking our own advice: The SELF staff will be OOO during this time!) We hope to inspire you to take it easy and get some rest, whatever that looks like for you.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: The day finally comes for some much-needed R and R. All you want to do is chill, take a bath, catch up on Selling Sunset, breathe in some fresh air, or do whatever it is you’ve been daydreaming of doing for days. But the moment you sit down to relax, you feel it creeping in: trusty ol’ anxiety, all too happy to gate-crash your downtime and ruin any opportunity you had to unwind.
As awesome as it’d be to hit snooze on stress whenever we needed to recharge (or permanently, while we’re wishing for stuff), it’s rarely that simple. So how are you supposed to get actually restful rest when your anxiety loves to show up uninvited? Below, find expert-approved tips, from dealing with symptoms in the moment to developing long-term strategies for rest.
1. Don’t try to relax.
I know, I know. The whole point of this is wanting to relax. But once we’re already anxious, it’s a lot easier to exacerbate the problem than it is to calm it. “Anxiety is a very powerful response,” David Rosmarin, PhD, founder of Center for Anxiety and author of Thriving with Anxiety, tells SELF. “The more you fight it, the worse it’s going to get.”
You can thank your sympathetic nervous system for that. Anything can catch its attention, from stray thoughts about your inbox to random false alarms courtesy of an anxiety disorder. When your anxious brain perceives a threat—be it real or imaginary—your body’s fight-or-flight response kicks into gear. Stress hormones flood your system, making your heart pound, your blood pressure rise, your breath quicks, your thoughts race…and none of it is super conducive to feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
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.
Even if it doesn’t, the exercise will still guide you toward potentially effective next steps—or at least a place to start. If brain-dumping helps you identify what’s interfering with your rest, you may want to focus more on addressing those root causes directly. But if you can’t pinpoint a specific source, that could be a sign you’d benefit from treating your anxiety more generally, not just at rest time.
4. Beware of numbing out.
When you’re anxious and exhausted, sometimes you just want to turn off your brain for a while. Enter: scrolling TikTok for hours, binging reruns of a comfort show, or reaching for some vice or another to take the edge off. First of all, don’t beat yourself up—you’re only human, and plenty of “bad for you” coping mechanisms are fine in moderation. “Sometimes you need something that feels good in the moment, and that’s okay,” says Houston.
That said, Houston recommends keeping an eye on whether you’re accidentally sabotaging your long-term rest efforts in favor of instant gratification. Without judgment or guilt, pause every once in a while to check in with yourself and your anxiety: Are your symptoms easing up, or are you just ignoring them? Have you lost track of time in a way that stresses you out more? Do you actually feel…well, rested?
You don’t necessarily have to do anything with this info right away—like Houston says, sometimes we just need to zone out—but get in the habit of noticing. “It’s more data for the future,” says Houston. “Maybe this isn’t helping you relax as much as you thought, so maybe next time you’ll try something new.”
5. Don’t underestimate the power of basic anti-anxiety tools.
It can be easy to roll your eyes at things like breathing exercises, meditation, and foundational self-care (like taking a shower or going for a walk) because they are recommended so often and in ways that can feel really dismissive or out of touch with the reality of anxiety. That said…they’re go-to suggestions for a good reason.
Deep breathing in particular is one of the most basic and effective tools to have in your anti-anxiety toolbox. That’s because it triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (reminder: the rest-and-digest response that counters our fight-or-flight) and can support you in your goal to move through the anxiety and make it feel more manageable.
“I think some people have written off deep breathing, but it can give more benefit than people give it credit for,” says Houston. “It won’t make you feel one hundred percent better, but it’ll help you get into a better headspace where you can say, ‘Alright, what can I do next?’”
Houston suggests using breathing to transition into rest mode, or just whenever you need a moment to let a spike of anxiety pass instead of pushing against it. New to deep breathing for anxiety? Houston’s go-to rec is box breathing, which you can read about alongside other exercises here.
6. Set boundaries to protect your rest.
If a work notification or the siren call of doom-scrolling has ever ruined your chill afternoon, you already know that protecting your physical and mental space can be paramount to rest. While it’s not realistic to carve out totally anxiety-free relaxation time—in part because it’s human to have at least some anxiety as a baseline, says Houston—there are steps we can take to make sure we’re not inviting it in with open arms either.
“You can put scaffolding in place to keep anxiety from bleeding into rest time,” says Houston. These might be digital boundaries (tip: focus apps that block notifications or specific sites aren’t just for productivity) or physical ones, such as choosing a new location you find more soothing. “You might think you should be at home because that’s what we associate with rest, but maybe your home is bringing you more anxiety,” says Houston.
If you don’t know where to start setting boundaries for rest, Dr. Rosmarin has one recommendation (slash plea) that he thinks most people could benefit from: “Don’t use your phone in bed,” he says. “Don’t sleep next to your phone. Keep it far away. If you need to use it as an alarm clock, call me up. I’ll get you another alarm clock.” (Specifically, he suggests powering down at least 30 minutes before bedtime.)
7. Build up your tolerance for anxiety.
A big reason anxiety can be so disruptive to rest is because we’ve come to fear it, which in turn can stress us out even more, says Dr. Rosmarin. Understandable, given how hard it is to chill out when it’s hanging around. But when we treat anxiety as something that will totally ruin our downtime, we might accidentally give it more power to do just that.
“Anxiety is a part of life, but when we get anxious we tend to say, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I have to feel better before I do this,’” says Dr. Rosmarin. “But we can actually accomplish a whole lot when we’re feeling anxious.”
The more we prove that to ourselves, the easier it gets to roll with it. It might not always be painless—or restful—but it will help you build a foundation of emotional resilience that will support your R and R efforts long-term. “Try to do something every day that makes you a little bit uncomfortable, a little bit anxious, a little bit jazzed up,” says Dr. Rosmarin. “Give yourself permission to do what you want to do anyway and feel anxious along the way.”