In 2021, The New York Times saw fit to define the collective feeling that was being experienced at the time with a precise and conclusive word: we were languishing. This year, the Oxford Dictionary chose “goblin mode” as the word of 2022. However, another term also resonates deep in today’s society: stresslaxing, a concept that refers to the stress produced by trying to relax instead of working on that which stresses you, the impossibility of enjoyment and complete calm, the restlessness produced by the desire to tick boxes on an endless list of tasks.
Stresslaxing occupies a small but significant part of our everyday life. It manifests itself in that conversation that lost your attention a while ago, in the anticipation you feel for your next task while you are still having lunch, in the way your mind wanders away from the TV because you just can’t forget about your to-do list. It is the constant struggle between being productive or taking time for yourself, be it lying on the couch, taking a walk or watching paint dry.
The word earned its own entry in the Urban Dictionary in August 2020, but the concept is older than that. According to a study carried out by the American Psychological Association almost 40 years ago, between 30% and 50% of people end up stresslaxing when they try to relax. However, psychologist Ingrid Pistono says that the phenomenon has intensified in recent times. “On social media, people recommend things like waking up at 5.00am to be more productive, training like a professional, cooking like a chef and being a perfect parent. With so much to do and so much pressure, who has time to think about relaxing?” she ponders.
Mireia Marín, an expert on fashion communication, describes stresslaxing as a mental murmur that prevents a person from disconnecting, but also from being present. “When I’m with someone, I dedicate more energy to thinking about my own things than to being with that person. I want time to pass quickly so I can get on with all I have to do,” she says. However, when she tries to take a day off, she gets bored easily. Pistono reflects: “We live in a society that rewards being highly productive, and at the same time we are showered with the advantages of practicing mindfulness and living each moment to the fullest. We believe that relaxing is a waste of time, while what we actually want is to save time.”
Cristina Rabre is a project manager at a translation startup who works from home. Her role is tied to tight deadlines, and despite the fact that her work is a small portion of the entire process, stresslaxing is part of her daily routine. “It slips through when I’m having drinks with friends, doing yoga or on vacation,” she says. The moment when the feeling is stronger is when she is trying to fall asleep. “I try to relax, especially at night, by closing my eyes, controlling my breathing and avoiding thinking about what causes me stress, but I can only think about all the things I have to do the next day.”
Stresslaxing is a social phenomenon. One need only take a look at the number of Google searches for the words “stress” (4.3 billion) and “relax” (1.5 billion), or explore the multitude of Reddit forums that address the topic. In the digital realm, it is a constant source of humor: user @ramalauw explains in a TikTok video that, “With stresslaxing, relaxing has become yet another task in my to-do list,” and goes on to describe, with a telemarketer’s tone, a series of things that come when you stresslax: chronic procrastination, crippling anxiety and constant burnout.
Today’s society tries to navigate between the need to be productive, the impulse to check emails every two minutes and the inertia that drives us to compulsively open apps just to close them again after 20 seconds of scrolling. We are restless beings looking for constant stimulation: be it from a text message, a busy schedule or eight online courses. Thus, recharging is relegated to the background and being at home becomes more punishment than reward. “We are forgetting how to be bored, and the power of boredom to think and reflect,” says psychologist Teresa Mingo. That forgetfulness deprives us of many things, including being more connected with ourselves.
How can we return to the essence of contemplative life? For Ingrid Pistono, the key is to stop normalizing not having time and going through life at full speed; picking up a different pace – a more conscious, rewarding one – and introducing whatever suits us into our routine. The first step can be as small as stopping running when you already missed the train, paying more attention to the story of the vacation of the person in front of you or rethinking whether constant production actually gives meaning to your life. Even if that is what you were led to believe since you were a child.